Whenever we talk about sexism, my students want to leap quickly to the feel-good stories about how far we've come. That is the kind of stuff you hear so often during March, women's history month. We've come a long way, baby. I suppose if you are thinking back just a few generations, the narrative about how much better things are for women is perfectly true.
The white women who lived in this area about 150 years ago, women who were descendents of European immigrants, had virtually no political power: they could not vote, they could not sue anyone, they could not testify in court. A married woman could not own property. The church, the state, and the social order dictated that a married woman be submissive to her husband, who was within his rights to beat her if she disobeyed him. And as much as I complain now about the ways that high heels cause women today permanent damage to their feet, legs, and lower backs, the socially mandated corset was far worse, a garment that meant that women could not even take a deep breath, a garment that contributed to a woman's chances of dying in childbirth. A man had all rights to his children: a dying man could choose that his children be taken from their mother upon his death and given to another woman to raise.
Of course, these white women were not the only women who lived in this area. Native women lived here too at that time. And when those white women looked at the lives of the native women who lived here, they were no doubt surprised at what they saw.
The native women participated fully in the decision-making in their community. They spoke up at meetings, they took full part in the spiritual ceremonies of the clan, and they had leadership roles. Property was held in common by all, women and men alike. Clan mothers and chiefs worked together to share the responsibility of keeping the community in balance, in harmony. Power was shared: the concept of power-over was not part of the social structure. Women could be healers, using the traditional ecological knowledge passed down over generations. Midwives attended births, used herbs for abortions, taught women to know and care for their bodies. Even the clothing the women wore – comfortable leggings that enabled them to run, to garden, or to do all kinds of physical tasks – was enviable.
Many male missionaries were horrified at the autonomy of native women. Certainly, their freedom and independence indicated that the native community was unnatural, heretical, blasphemous. Just plain wrong.
Some of the missionary’s wives, no doubt, looked at the way the native women lived – and were envious.
Some historians have said that for some of these white women, contact with native women helped spark that realization, that vision, that women did not have to live beneath men. And these white women did begin to organize, to assert themselves, to change the political and social structures that kept them in subordination to men.
So yeah, if I look back at the white women who lived here 150 years ago, I can feel good about how far we've come, how much more freedom and independence my daughter will have compared to them. But if I look at the lives of native women in this area, how they lived hundreds of years ago, a way of living that of course was attacked fiercely by the powers of patriarchy, I can see that we are still just playing catch up, still trying to throw off the legacy and the myth of white male supremacy.
Our daughters are taught this myth repeatedly: we’ve come a long way, baby. But I think we need to be suspicious of a slogan used successfully to convince women that they, too, could ruin their lungs with cigarettes. The view of history as a linear progression in which things are always getting better for women is a dangerous one.
The longer view shows a different story. We still have a long ways to go just to gain back what we've lost. There is nothing here to feel good about.
This will sort of give away my geographic location, but I am too much of an academic not to cite at least one of my sources for the facts I've include in this blog post: a book called Sisters in Spirit: Haudenosaunee Influence on Early American Feminists by Sally Roesch Wagner.
Blog Against Sexism Day