Women’s historian speaks in Newark Valley

Women's historian speaks in Newark Valley

Dr. Sally Roesch Wagner is pictured with a copy of “Sisters of the Spirit. (Provided Photos)

Now I want you all to sit up, straighten your back and tuck in your tummies. One hundred fifty years ago this is how you would feel wearing a corset. This was the required dress for many women in that period of time.

This was the start of Dr. Sally Roesch Wagner’s talk at the Newark Valley High School on April 30. The classroom where she spoke was filled to capacity. She would later mention that the fainting couches during the Victorian period weren’t designed for women swooning over their romantic encounters so much as just protecting women who lost consciousness from the constrictions of trying to achieve the ideal 18-inch waist. It reminded one of what the Chinese did for the feet of their daughters, but this Western practice was even worse for women’s bodies.

The theme of the presentation was “The Haudenosaunee  (Iroquois) Influence on Women’s Rights”.  Women had no legal standing in the early Republic: they were non-persons, chattel, virtual property. They could not own property; their children could be willed away by their husbands. The Declaration of Independence emphasized this: “All men are created equal” (and many males were excluded from this high-sounding phrase as well). Dr. Wagner mentioned a South Carolina incident whereby a husband beat his wife severely for not following his directive. The courts viewed this as legal under the law. Marital rape was not considered an offense at the time.

Women's historian speaks in Newark Valley

Dr. Sally Roesch Wagner talks to Newark Valley High School students earlier this year about women’s rights. (Provided Photo)

In the period of the 1840’s, which spawned a variety of social movements including abolition of slavery, temperance and labor reform, women’s rights also came into the public forum culminating in the “Declaration of Sentiments” that resulted from the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. Seneca Falls is now home to the Women’s Rights National Historic Park. The “Declaration” was truly revolutionary, but what  could have inspired this vision of equality of the sexes? Dr. Wagner spent 20 years examining the writings of the early feminists – Matilda Joslyn Gage (1826-1898), Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), Lucretia Mott (1793-1880) – without finding what she felt was the source for this visionary goal. “Then I realized I had been skimming over the source of their inspiration without noticing it. My own unconscious white supremacy had kept me from recognizing what these prototypical feminists kept insisting in their writings: They caught a glimpse of the possibility of freedom because they knew women who lived liberated lives, women who had always possessed rights beyond their wildest imagination — Iroquois women.”

“The more evidence I uncovered of this indelible Native American influence on the vision of early United States feminists, the more certain I became that this story must be told.”

Stanton would visit with Oneida women when she visited her cousin Gerrit Smith in Peterboro. Smith was a radical social activist in his own right whose daughter Elizabeth realized that if women shed 20 lbs. of excess clothing (similar to the dress of Native American women), their lives would significantly improve. This dress style came to be known as “Bloomers” after the newspaper editor who promoted the trend. Gage in her work to promote more suitable working conditions for women was well aware of the role Onondaga women played in traditional agriculture. Lucretia Mott and her husband James worked with the Seneca through the Society of Friends to aid them in their travails with unscrupulous land speculators. In this process they were able to witness how women were an equal part of the decision making process.

All three learned how women were key figures in deciding who would be chief and could “take the horns off” a chief who was not acting in the best interests of the clan and nation. The basic criteria for this position included the following: no evidence of theft or murder or having abused a woman. When learning of this, Dr. Wagner’s reaction was this, “There goes Congress”.

Women were in charge of all goods that were brought into the longhouse. Rape was virtually unknown, even with the women who were brought in as captives and many of these captives were very reluctant to leave when exchanges were negotiated. A woman had the authority to send her husband packing if he was not providing for the family adequately.

Many Christians used the Bible as a justification for keeping women in a subservient role. Both Stanton and Gage argued strongly against this interpretation. In one of Stanton’s major works, The Woman’s Bible, published in 1895, she gave this viewpoint regarding the Christian Bible:

“[It] makes woman a mere after thought in creation; the author of evil; cursed in her maternity; a subject in marriage; and claims divine authority for this fourfold bondage, this wholesale desecration of the mothers of the race. I do not believe God ever wrote or inspired such sentiments.”

Gage in her work Woman, Church and State, published in 1893 gave a similar view: “In the name of religion the worst crimes against humanity have ever been perpetrated.” As a member of the Fayetteville Baptist Church, Gage believed that true religion set people free.

Women’s suffrage became a hot topic in Tioga County back in the day. Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906) actually made two visits to Tioga County in 1869 and 1894. However, the first “invasion of the suffragette” came along in 1912, a suffragette being defined as one who was willing to promote this cause out in the street, not just in a meeting hall.

With a vote scheduled for 1915, the suffrage campaign began in earnest in July 1915 with a suffrage headquarters being opened at 16 1/2 Lake Street. A mass gathering took place at the Tioga Theater on Oct. 5, 1915. The speakers included Mrs. Philip Snowden of Great Britain and Lt. Gov. W. Y. Morgan of Kansas. A parade preceeded the gathering of 13 young girls dressed in white and wearing “Vote for Women” sashes. Each girl represented a suffrage state and each girl held a placard with the state’s name.

In spite of this effort, suffrage in Tioga County was soundly defeated by 634 votes with only the Towns of Spencer and Barton voting in favor. One disturbing observation was that 344 blank votes were cast, indicating that many voters were largely indifferent to the question.

The vote came up again in 1917. At each polling place two “women watchers” sat and observed each voter as they deposited their ballots. At the same time these women did knitting for the soldiers in France. This time the vote was different: Tioga County voted for suffrage by 114 votes. It would be an exciting living history opportunity for Tioga County to re-enact the struggles for women’s suffrage in 2017. Why wait until 2020 when everyone will be on the band wagon for the centennial of the 19th amendment?

The presentation by Dr. Wagner prompted this story from Gerry Curkendall, a long time member and supporter of the Newark Valley Historical Society.

“The setting of this story is the little rural settlement of Bear Thicket, Missouri, from about 1840 to the early 1870s. My great grandfather, Andrew Shields, was married for the first time, about 1840, when he was 40 years old. This was typical of Irishmen of that era, especially in the Old Sod.

“Andrew had seven children by his first wife, and when she died some of them were still at home and probably spread in age. Andrew needed a housekeeper for his large home and family, and was acquainted with a German family, reportedly in Tennessee, who had a 16-year old daughter they needed to place, so Andrew hired her. Her name was Elizabeth Wilhite.

Propriety being what it was, he couldn’t have a young unmarried woman in the house, so he married her. I believe she was not consulted in this. She bore him five children, including my grandmother, the last of which was born when he was 72 years old. I believe that Elizabeth was little more than chattel to Andrew. In fact, my grandmother and her sister told me that they never heard their mother address, or speak of their father, other than as ‘Mr. Shields.’”

Dr. Wagner’s talk was the first in a Folk Art Series sponsored by the Newark Valley Historical Society with funds provided by the New York Council for the Humanities through the speakers in the Humanities program. The next offering in this series will be a blacksmithing workshop on June 13. Virginia Wood, coordinator of the series, had this to say.

“We were delighted with the public response to the speaker and subject matter and look forward to similar programs in the future. We were especially glad to see some from the student body and faculty drop in and make a contribution with enlightened and interesting comments and questions. Sally appreciated the unique opportunity of having a mixed audience, including men and women, from ages 92-16 years in the same room.”

These included members of the AP History class and members of the Nor-Ti Yorkers History Club.

Dr. Wagner left the audience knowing that the fight for gender equality is still a work in progress.

“The struggle for women’s suffrage spanned a total of 72 years from 1848 to 1920. The Equal Rights Amendment, first introduced in 1924 has still yet to be ratified. It is sobering to realize that this piece of gender equality has stretched out even longer.”

There are two aspects relating to the Haudenosaunee that deserve mention. One relates to a woman by the name of Harriet Maxwell Converse who was born in Elmira in 1836. She was raised in a family that was fascinated by Native cultures and both her grandfather and father were Indian traders (Unlike many Indian traders, both were actually viewed in a positive light by the Seneca and were adopted into the tribe). When Harriet and her husband, Frank Converse, were living in New York City, they became fast friends with Minnie and Ely Parker. This rekindled Harriet’s interest in native cultures and she began doing research and writing about the Six Nations.

In addition to research and writing, she also became a political advocate for the Six Nations in their disputes with the Ogden Land Company. In 1884 Harriet teamed up with Ely Parker to erect a statue to the Seneca Chief Red Jacket. For her efforts the Seneca Nation adopted her into the Snipe Clan and in 1891 she was given the distinction of being the first white woman ever given the rank of being a Six Nations Chief.

She was given the name “Gaiiwahoh” or “The Watcher”.  Converse introduced Matilda Josyln Gage to the Wolf Clan Mohawk women who honorarily adopted her into their clan in 1893 giving her the name “Karonienhawi”, or she who holds the sky.

The second aspect of Haudenosaunee influence goes back to the colonial period. Benjamin Franklin in a letter to James Parker wrote the following in 1751:

“It would be a strange thing if Six Nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming a scheme for such an union, and be able to execute it in such a manner as that it has subsisted ages and appears indissoluble; and yet that a like union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies, to whom it is more necessary and must be more advantageous, and who cannot be supposed to want an equal understanding of their interests.”

The ability of the Six Nations to work as a unified force was an “inspiration” for the colonies in their fledgling efforts to gain independence.  It is unfortunate that the Six Nations view of the “weaker sex” was not adopted at the same time.

Dr. Sally Roesch Wagner, born in South Dakota, was one of the first to receive a doctorate in women’s studies (UC Santa Cruz) and developed one of the first college women’s study program (CSU Sacramento). She has taught women’s studies for 43 years and is an adjunct faculty member in the Honors Program at Syracuse University.

She appeared as a “talking head” in the Ken Burns series “Not for Ourselves Alone: the Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony” and was an historian for the PBS special “One Woman, One Vote”. She has been interviewed several times on NPR’s “All Things Considered” and “Democracy Now”. She was a guest on the NPR program “Out of Bounds” hosted by Tish Pearlman. She is currently the Founding Director of the Matilda Josyln Gage Foundation in Fayetteville, N.Y. and was named one of 2015’s 21 Women for the 21st Century by women’s news.

For more information on Sally Roesch Wagner, visit these links: www.sallyroeschwagner.com and www.matildajosylngage.com.

Sally Roesch Wagner’s books are available at: sallyroeschwagner.com/books. To read her essay “The Untold Story of the Iroquois Influence on the Early Feminists” go online to: http://www.feminist.com/resources/artspeech/genwom/iroquoisinfluence.html.

For more information on the women’s enews honor: www.sallyroeschwagner.com/sally-honored-as-one-of-21-leaders-for-the-21-century-by-womens-enews/.