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season1  · 03 Aug 2022

S1E04 - Haudenosaunee Influence on the Women’s Rights Movement with Sally Roesch Wagner

Our hosts (Philip P. Arnold & Sandy Bigtree) speak with Dr. Sally Roesch Wagner. Dr. Wagner is the Founder and Executive Director of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation and Center for Social Justice Dialogue in Fayetteville, New York.

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We begin this episode with a land acknowledgement. Our hosts Prof. Philip P. Arnold and Sandy Bigtree (Mohawk Nation) begin by introducing our guest Dr. Sally Roesch Wagner. She is the Founder and Executive Director of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation and Center for Social Justice Dialogue in Fayetteville, New York.

A prolific author, Dr. Wagner’s anthology The Women’s Suffrage Movement, with a Forward by Gloria Steinem (Penguin Classics, 2019), unfolds a new intersectional look at the 19th century woman’s rights movement. Sisters in Spirit: Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Influence on Early American Feminists (Native Voices, 2001) documents the surprisingly unrecognized authority of Native women, who inspired the suffrage movement. It was followed by her young reader’s book, We Want Equal Rights: How Suffragists Were Influenced by Native American Women (Native Voices, 2020).

Her intellectual inspiration is Matilda Joslyn Gage (1826-1898). She was one of the influential early voices of the Women’s Suffrage Movement. She was hidden from history and forgotten until Wagner began the hard and important work of telling Gage’s story. What’s so remarkable and influential about Gage was her attention to power. Gage’s work underscores how Christianity uses virtue and morality to exercise power and control. In Gage’s work like Woman, Church and State (1893), Wagner sees a connection between Gage’s understanding of domination and power and the analysis of domination and power provided by scholars studying the Doctrine of Discovery. For example, the Papal Bull Dum Diversas (1452), which wraps the Doctrine of Discovery in the theological and legal language of the Church, and the Bull Romanus Pontifex (1454) are contemporaneous with Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer the Witches) 1486. Malleus Maleficarum sought to control women and the Doctrine of Discovery sought to control Mother Earth and all living beings. These documents provide an ideological framework for justifying the domination and control necessary in establishing the patriarchal hierarchy that regulates women and the natural regenerative world.

Bigtree reminds us that the Haudenosaunee Confederacy provided a world in practice that differed significantly from the white Christian Supremacist settler-colonial framework of the Doctrine of Discovery.1 Wagner agrees and highlights how the work of Gage speaks to these issues. Living in Fayetteville, NY among the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, Gage was transformed by seeing a society that demonstrated that another world was not only possible but had been thriving for thousands of years. Gage saw Haudenosaunee women living free of the white Christian patriarchy and she envisioned this future for women. For Gage, the Haudenosaunee Great Binding Peace illuminated the ways in which Indigenous Peoples lived in a world of abundance. Bigtree reminds us that Haudenosaunee women saw beyond human rights, they were connected with the regenerative life force of the Earth, fully understanding that in maintaining this reciprocity one must uphold their responsibilities to living respectfully with ALL beings—both human and non-human. Freedom and equity exemplified this regenerative engagement with the natural world. While the white Christian patriarchy of the United States believes women are responsible for delivering evil into the world, the Haudenosaunee understand women as the life-givers who connect humans with a regenerative Earth. By observing the Haudenosaunee, Gage understood that the key to peace and the transformation of society was by embracing the cycles of harmony and balance illustrated through the Haudenosaunee Great Binding Peace.

Matilda Joslyn Gage

As Gloria Steinem says, Matilda Joslyn Gage was a woman ahead of her time. Wagner sees Gage as a prophet and a visionary who was misunderstood in her own time and forced out of the women’s movement because she was speaking to the future– refusing to be satisfied with only half measures on the march to equality. Wagner suggests that Gage’s iconic work, Woman, Church and State (1893), is to be understood as women against church and state. In the book she envisions the end of patriarchy and capitalism—this going beyond the vote. She saw voting as one of the tools for challenging the fourfold oppression of women (church, family, capitalism, and the state).

Succinctly Wagner summarizes the work of Gage, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and others in The Woman’s Bible (1895), saying:

The foundation of Christianity is the story of Eve, the bringing of evil into the world. If Eve had not brought evil into the world, there would be no need for a Christ. There would be no need for salvation. We’d still be in the Garden of Eden. So, the idea of woman being the creator of evil is at the foundation of Christian theology. That was the analysis of Gage and Stanton.

The State

Shifting the conversation to the state, Wagner turns to William Blackstone and his Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1770). For Blackstone, under the law women were as good as dead once they married. This practice is known as Coverture. For Gage, Haudenosaunee society was the polar opposite of coverture, women were equal to men and there was balance. Clan Mothers were able to choose a Royanie (Man of the Good Mind), and if necessary, remove his title. For Gage and Stanton Women’s rights was more than a dream it was the reality of their Haudenosaunee neighbors. They could clearly see that another world was possible. According to Wagner, “Matilda Joslyn Gage said of the Haudenosaunee, ‘Never was justice more perfect. Never was civilization higher.’”

Skä·noñh the Great Law of Peace Center

Illustrating Wagner’s point, Bigtree turns the conversation to the Skä·noñh Great Law of Peace Center. The center is located on Onondaga Lake where the Peacemaker brought the message of the Great Law of Peace to the Onondaga Nation and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, thousands of years ago.

And Sid Hill, the current Tadodaho of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, reiterates today,” peace can only be obtained when you’re in proper relationship with the natural world.” So, one of the key elements in restoring peace and integrating a more regenerative kind of relationship with the Earth involves women reconnecting us to the Earth through clanship. This was very vital to laying the foundation of peace, this sacred bond with the Earth.

~ Sandy Bigtree

The Founding Mothers of the Women’s Suffrage Movement had a front row seat to an alternative society that protected and cared for nature, providing us with clean water, mutuality, and equality. A world marked by abundance not scarcity. Gage saw the agricultural practices of Haudenosaunee women juxtaposed with the destructive forces of U.S. society and she poetically described the Haudenosaunee relationship with the natural world as: “They would tickle Mother Earth with a stick and she would laugh forth abundance” as Wagner summarizes.

Arnold and Wagner helpfully situate Christian exceptionalism, white exceptionalism and manifest destiny within the Doctrine of Discovery as a framework. Christian exceptionalism predates the Age of Discovery and white exceptionalism. White supremacy obscures the Christian supremacy and exceptionalism embedded within it. White supremacy becomes the dominate frame in the nineteenth century as a way to attack the humanity of the Indigenous Peoples forcibly converted by Christian missionaries. The goal of white Christian supremacy is preserving itself and keeping itself in the place of superiority. The relationship between the domination and dehumanization of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery and global capitalism help to create the world today—one that embraces a hierarchical worldview based on dominion and that justifies exploitation, extraction, and the enslavement of others in the pursuit of profit. This domination framework, while all-encompassing, did not develop overnight and even as it was developing there were many dissenters like Gage and the Haudenosaunee.

After the break Arnold returns the conversation to examining how the 15th century began the assault on Indigenous Nations and Peoples. Wagner notes that for Gage one of the most powerful elements of Indigenous values was the pre-Christian elements of Indigenous cultures which provided a spirituality that was connected to Mother Earth. Gage is horrified not only by the assault on Indigenous Peoples in the western hemisphere but also in the eastern hemisphere. John Mohawk (Seneca Nation) in his Utopian Legacies: A History of Conquest and Oppression in the Western World (2000) underscores this point by highlighting how the wealth of Indigenous Peoples and witches in Europe along with the enslavement of African peoples and the wealth of the Indigenous nations and peoples of Africa helped to fund the colonization and theft of wealth from the Indigenous nations and peoples of the Western hemisphere.

Our hosts and guests see a shared commonality across the world, one where women are often the keepers of Indigenous medicines, agricultural and ecological knowledge. Women are the ones who hold this knowledge because they understood a mutual and material connection and bond with the Earth. Living in a hands-on mutual and sustaining relationship with Mother Earth and all living beings creates a balance and harmony that embraces the spirit of regeneration. The commodification of Mother Earth and of all relationships severs this ancient connection.


By way of conclusion Arnold asks Wagner what she sees are some ways forward towards change and transformation? Wagner says that she understands that “Survival is Indigenous.” For the Earth and all living beings to survive we must all listen and learn from Indigenous Peoples and let them provide leadership so we can work collaboratively on decolonizing our minds, societies, and lands. For her the beginning of decolonizing the mind is by moving beyond reductionistic binary thinking.

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  • Music: Onondaga Social Dance songs performed by Orris Edwards and Regis Cook
  • Producers: Jordan Loewen-Colón and Adam DJ Brett
  • Show notes: Adam DJ Brett


Philip P. Arnold and Sandra Bigtree, “Haudenosaunee Influence on the Women’s Rights Movement with Sally Roesch Wagner,” Mapping the Doctrine of Discovery (Podcast), August 03, 2022.

  1. Following the AP style guide, we intentionally lowercase white as a way to challenge whiteness and to underscore the effacement of all of the histories, cultures, and identities which are lumped together under the term white. Cf. John Daniszewski, “Why we will lowercase white,” AP: The Definitive Source (blog), July 20, 2020.

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