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American Feminism & Its First Nations' Roots

To kick off Women’s History month, a time where the work of the feminist movement seems to be hoisted up higher on a pedestal than the rest of the year, we wanted to take you back to (arguably) the beginning of the feminist movement in America: suffrage. Conversations about suffrage began at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, but we have to take you back to at least 1491.

“The roots of white feminism can be traced back to Native feminisms.[1] In particular, the roots of white feminism can be found within the egalitarian societies [within] the social structures” of many First Nations, Native, and Indigenous communities; for this particular discussion, I will be focusing on the Haudenosaunee Confederation.[2] The theoretical ideologies that are based on Native ways of being, focusing primarily on gender and sexuality, are Native feminisms. It is a term that is used more recently than historically, to connote the plurality found within Native America and used as a means of disrupting settler colonialism and the patriarchy it brought with it, rather than the patriarchy itself.[3]

That is the root of it, is it not?


The suffrage movement in America was spearheaded by women such as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Julia Ward Howe who

“were neighbors with the Haudenosaunee in what is now New York state. In finding ‘the courage to challenge all institutional society… they were inspired’ by their ‘neighbors’, the Native women who were living in an egalitarian society.[4] However, the women did not broaden their work to the Native women from whom they were inspired. This established a precedent for using Native women as data, inserting them ‘into existing feminist paradigms for the political, social, and intellectual advancement of non-Natives.’[5][6]


The Haudenosaunee Confederation, like many other First Nations, Native, and Indigenous communities, lived (and still do) in equal gender roles and partnerships with each other and the land they inhabit. They also hold their women in high esteem socially, often times placing them in major leadership roles. Haudenosaunee traditions, customs, and documents have been used as uncredited inspiration for many early American milestones, too, such as the writing of the United States Constitution, and the organizing of the thirteen colonies under one governmental system.


This is the importance of intersectionality and teaching histories of academic disciplines and methodologies. In implementing feminist critique or analysis in our methods, we are leaving out so many other mentalities that could better reach at the root of the issue we are trying to combat. In my master’s thesis, Transforming the Museum Space: Native Feminisms as Activism in “Hearts of Our People”, I argue that by using Native feminisms instead of mainstream, white feminism, as museum professionals, we can create more inclusive spaces and methods that incorporate social activism into museum work. Throughout March and April, we will be producing articles that incorporate research, ideologies, and methodologies that come from our master’s theses; I will go into depth in later articles about how this was accomplished in the exhibition “Heart of Our People: Native Women Artists”.


Sarah Hixson (she/her/hers) is an aspiring curator and educator focusing on DEAI and indigenization work and incorporating activism into museum practices. If you have questions for Sarah, please comment below or send an email to thegallerytalkinfo@gmail.com.


Image: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Library of Congress

[1] In my thesis, I chose to use “white feminism” because in practice, the mainstream feminism that exists in this moment is intersectional or aware enough of how women of other ethnicities exist in the world to be called anything else. I am talking about the mainstream feminism used within the United States. We’re getting there, but we’re not there yet. And until that day comes, it will be white feminism. [2] Sarah Hixson, Transforming the Museum Space: Native Feminisms as Activism in “Hearts of Our People”, 2020. [3] Hixson, Transforming the Museum Space, pp. 3 [4] Sally Roesch Wagner, “Women Voted Before the United States Was Formed”, pp. 1 [5] Nancy Marie Mithlo, “”A Real Feminist Journey”, pp. 11 [6] Hixson, Transforming the Museum Space, pp. 3

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