March 13, 2009

The Friday Record - Colonial and Native American Women's Roles in Society

In May, 2008 I graduated from a junior college with an A.A. in history/education. I earned 18 hours of honors classes. The following is part of an essay I did for World Civilization. The entire essay is 12 pages long, so no, I didn't post it all here. Since it's a college essay, it's a bit dry, but I hope you like it. I did remove the first paragraph, which really explains why it's called "A Woman's Place is the House." I wrote it in 2006, when we held the mid-term elections and Nancy Pelosi was about to be voted into the highest elected office any woman has held in the United States.

My apologies that the footnote numbers have been messed up, so just overlook the huge numbers in the middle of sentences.

Please make a comment on your thoughts about what I've written here. March is National Women's History month. Sometimes I think we forget that women did have a role in shaping our history....but as I say below, history is written by the victors, and those in charge. Those in charge were usually the men. They tended to overlook the role women played.....

A Woman’s Place is in the House:
The Affect of Colonization on
Native American and Colonial Women’s
Place in Society

In the past few decades, women are re-opening doors that were closed with European expansion and going back to the time when they owned the property, the children and were tribal chiefs. The British colonization of the North America Atlantic seaboard is often historically identified in terms of western European conquest, advancement and imperialist destiny, leading to the decline of the Native American civilizations. Because the conquerors wrote the history, the power of Native American women was misidentified or overlooked. Whether on purpose or because of ingrained biases toward women European observers of the American Indian tribes did not recognize the high status of the native women. However, when exploring these powers, it should not be ignored that though native women had much more freedom than the European women, both groups had boundaries that women were expected to stay in and both groups paid the consequences for crossing the line and breaking the rules.

The idea that Native American women were, as a Jesuit priest observed, slaves and “pack-mules”1 to husbands and fathers is a misconception many of the early Europeans to the New World conveyed in their observations and writings. The priest based his argument on the fact that women worked in the field while the men appeared to frolic and play in the woods. His interpretation of women’s work demonstrated his bias and failure to understand the true power and prestige Native American women held within their family and tribe.

Throughout their history, Native American women have had an esteemed position in their tribe’s society. Both the Huron and Iroquois tribes believed in the myth of the Turtle Woman,2 the mother of creation. In this myth, women are sacred creatures, rather than the fallen women of Judo-Christian belief who were vilified for leading men into sin.3 St. Jerome, a 4th-century Latin father, claimed, "Woman is the gate of the devil, the path of wickedness, the sting of the serpent, in a word a perilous object."4 Furthermore, Thomas Aquinas, the 13th-century Christian theologian, expressed the view that a woman’s only worth was to birth children, because “for other purposes men would be better assisted by other men."5 The Christian church did not feel child birth was enough to raise the status of women above the original sin. However, the reverence of forming the world and birthing human-kind raised the standing of Native women within their societies.

In the European society of the time, women were very seldom owners of property. Even today, when a couple buys a home the primary ownership will be listed in the husband’s name. This is contrary to Native American societies where women tended to be the primary property owners. In her essay “The Changing Status of Seneca Women,” Joy Bilharz explains that Iroquois women held high status because of the “female ownership of the land [and] control over horticultural production….”6 Since women were the ones who toiled in the field the land belonged to them, as well as the harvest they reaped from it. Thus, Native American women were in control of the food and could give or deny it as they saw fit. Though it was the Chief who saw to the redistribution of the harvest, it was the women who had the final say in the matter, as the foodstuff belonged to them.7 As the property owners, Native American women held an elevated status within Native American societies.

In addition, since women ran the household, did the cooking and cared for the children, they owned the home, the possessions and the children. Women in Western Europe held all the same duties, yet did not own or control anything. Therefore, the early explorers did not seem to fully understand the role of Native American women. For similar reasons, the explorers did not understand the power Native women had in arranging marriages for their children. In both Europe and the Colonies it was the father who did the arranging, which were usually based on alliances or filling the family’s coffers. However, in some tribes, such as the Iroquois, mothers oversaw this task, looking for unions that would be most advantageous to not only the family, but the community.8

Native women also held a favorable position in marriage. Unlike a European union, either party within a Native American marriage could easily obtain a divorce. Anthony Wallace’s “The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca” explains that since men were hunters, often gone for months or years at a time, “marriages were apt to fray when a husband traveled too far, too frequently or for too long.”9 He might take up a temporary marriage with a woman in another village whose husband was gone, while his wife was doing the same in her village. Upon the husband’s return, he could try to win her back, but it was frowned upon for him to punish his wife or her lover should she choose to stay with the new man.10 In the event of a divorce, the belongings, household and children generally stayed with the woman while the man moved out of the house.

1. Natalie Zemon Davis, “Iroquois Women, European Women.” American Encounters 99.
2. “Native American Myths: Creation By Women,” Cystalinks.
3. “Women’s History in America.”
4. John Demos, “Husbands and Wives, Parents and Children in Plymouth Colony,” The Way We Lived: Essays and Documents in American Social History 64.
5. “Women’s History in America.”
6. Joy Bilharz, “First Among Equals: The Changing Status of Seneca Women,” Women and Power in Native North America 103.
7. James Taylor Carson, “Molly Brant: From Clan mother to Loyalist Chief” Sifters: Native American Women’s Lives 49.
8. Natalie Zemon Davis “Iroquois Women, European Women,” American Encounters 99.
9.Anthony Wallace, “The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca,” The Way We Lived: Essays and Documents in American Social History 12.
10. Anthony Wallace, “The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca,” 12

Anna Kathyrn Lanier


Skhye said...

Did I ever tell you that uou should take Peoples of North America when you get to UofH? It's in the anthropology courses. Of course! LOL And you'll learn much much more than this. ;)

Skhye said...

That would be "you" instead of "uou". My Carpal Tunnel is raging like mad after all the sanding I've been doing on the bookshelves. Fingers are going every which way...

Anonymous said...

That was fantastic. Would LOVE to read the rest of it.
I find it interesting that the woman owned the house. Sure wish it was that way in polite "white" society, these days!
Very insightful article. Thanks for sharing it.

Jannine said...

Terrific article. I can't wait to read the rest of it. What I found surprising is the Native American women could get a divorce. I thought of them historically as the "slaves" you mentioned.

Good job, Melinda!

Susan Macatee said...

Great article! It's so interesting to me how the roles of women differed in that time period.

Emma Lai said...

Excellent writing, Anna! It's infinitely more interesting than many graduate level papers that I've been forced to read. I always enjoy reading about the imposition of Western values onto different cultures. If only we tried to understand others in the context of their cultures, the world would be a much different place! Can't wait to read the rest.

Gerri Bowen said...

That was interesting, Anna. So how did the settlers view Native American women? I'm assuming that if they had little contact, they would believe what they'd been told. I guess I should ask, when did the view that N.A.women as slave change?
I have an image of a European immigrant having an 'aha' moment as she observes N.A. women.

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Gerri, I don't think it ever changed, not with your average European. They never understood the cultures of the Natives. If they did, they wouldn't have decimated them. Certainly, not every European felt this way....there were some who understood the truth, but the average European felt the Natives were heathen and ungodly. They also wanted the land and resources the Natives had. It was easier to kill and destroy the Natives and their cultures if they ddin't see them as fully human, as working soceities.

Well into the 20th century, both the US and Canada continued to decimate the Native cultures by taking their children away and sending them to 'state schools' where it was forbidden to speak their native tongues.

The Europeans purposely exposed the Natives to small pox and other diseases. Europeans and Americans felt that Manifest Destiny gave us that right.

Anna Kathryn

Monya Clayton said...

Anna - as an Australian of British descent was interested in your last quote. We've been here since 1788, the Aboriginal people at least 40,000 years before that. And they were treated much as you describe here. They still have huge problems and various governments simply throw money at them. Now we have a new wave of multiculturism, not only other European nations (my husband and I both have some German forebears, I also some Irish, Polish & Scots). Most of the nationalities of the world are now represented in our population of only 20 million. (In the 1940s it was 7 million, so we've grown very quickly.)

I would really be interested in reading the Colonial women's side of your excellent student paper. Mainly because I have a historical with TWRP, The Pirate And The Puritan, and I researched it in depth. I didn't want anyone catching me out on mistakes! I hope I didn't make any, though I discovered later a couple of small ones. But I would understand that American readers might not like an Australian writing about their history. You wouldn't believe some of the silly things I've seen in romances set in Australia by overseas authors!
Yes, do print the remainder of the paper. Love to read it.
Monya (aka Mary)

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Monya, yes, the destruction of aborginal tribes was not secluded to the Americas, nor the English. It just amazes me that they thought they were so superiour to the native people, simply because they didn't live the same way.

Honestly, though, I don't think your average American is going to realize mistakes made about a Puritan. I'd bet, and Skhye could back me up on this bet, that most Americans couldn't even tell you what a Puritan that's really sad! (ah, a virgin?) So, unless you have a die-hard history buff reading your stuff, you shouldn't get called on too many inaccruacies .

I know just enough about history to get me

Okay, you and others have convinced me to go ahead and post the rest of my paper. I'll do that over the next few weeks....what I posted here is 3 pages long. I don't want to make it too long in one sitting and you all lose interest. I do go into the Colonial side more in the paper, than I did in this excerpt. I also go into what happened to woman of both culture who crossed the line....including, I believe a couple of Puritans!

Anna Kathryn