Iroquoian Women: Power Held and Shared by Carol P. Christ

According to Barbara Alice Mann, author of Iroquoian Women, women were at the center of a matrilineal Iroquoian society that could be called (though she does not call it that) an “egalitarian matriarchy.” As in other egalitarian matriarchies, including those of the Mosuo and the Minangkabau, women both hold power and share it with men. According to Peggy Reeves Sanday who studied many societies in the anthropological records, female power does not mean female domination.

In attempting to reconstruct the role of women in Iroquois society, Mann first had to engage in a painstaking deconstruction of the scholarly consensus that men ruled among the Iroquois. Believing that male dominance is universal, scholars ignored or explained away a great deal of evidence that Iroquoian women were and are at the center of Iroquoian society. Those who believe that academic scholarship is objective or relatively objective may have to revise their opinions after reading the masses of evidence of witting and unwitting distortion of Iroquois society that Mann uncovers. In order to reconstruct the role of women in Iroquoian society, Mann also had to deal with the fact that the American government destroyed much of Iroquoian oral tradition through policies of forced assimilation that removed children to government schools and forbade the speaking of native languages.

According to Mann, the Iroquois were not monotheists, and they did not believe in Gods or Goddesses. Mann argues that references to a “Great Spirit” as the highest power in the Iroquoian pantheon emerged in response to Christian missionizing and conquest. In contrast, she argues that the Iroquois recognize many spirits and the need to keep everything in balance. Iroquoian myths are not intended to provide information about another world. Rather they are teaching stories that embody the central values of Iroquoian culture.

The central Iroquoian story tells of Sky Woman and her daughter Fat-Faced Lynx. When Sky Woman fell to earth she carried seeds of the Three Sisters, Corn, Squash, and Beans in one hand and Tobacco in the other. She soon gave birth to Lynx and together they roamed the earth planting seeds and naming the animals. Eventually Lynx became pregnant by the wind and gave birth to two sons, Sapling and Flint. Lynx died in childbirth. Not long after Sky Woman died as well. Lynx became known as Mother Earth while Sky Woman became Grandmother Moon.

The story of Sky Woman and Lynx reflects the centrality of the mother-daughter bond in matrilineal cultures: there is no room or need for a sacred marriage and the idea that a single male God created the world out of nothing would have seemed preposterous. Sky Woman is connected to women’s agricultural work in Iroquoian culture: she brought the seeds of the three plants the women cultivated. However, because the rivalry between the motherless twins Sapling and Flint fit more easily into patriarchal narratives, the stories of love and co-operation between Sky Woman and Lynx and of Sky Woman’s gift of seeds were largely forgotten or ignored by western missionaries, colonists, and academics.

According to Mann, the stories of Sky Woman and Lynx and of Sapling and Flint in the earliest times of the earth story reflect a principle of pairing known as “double wampum,” the intention of which is to include all points of view, rather than (as is more common in western thinking) to exclude in order to dominate. As there are two sets of two, four points of view are expressed.

The principle of double wampum can be used to explain the pairing of the men’s councils made up of uncles and the women’s councils made up of grandmothers in the governance of the clan. Women gave birth to the next generations, owned the land, and controlled the cycles of planting, harvesting, and food preparation. Thus they presided over all of the internal or family and land-based activities of the clan. The men were involved with the external relations of the clan, including trading and greeting visitors, hunting and managing forests, and making war and peace. They were the ones to meet with missionaries, colonizers, and academics. European men did not understand that the Iroquoian men could make decisions affecting the clan as a whole only when the women agreed with their policies. They did not see or did not know how to interpret the powerful roles of women in Iroquoian society.

In contrast, Mann suggests, European women knew exactly what they were seeing. The freedom and power of Iroquoian women inspired European women to begin to fight for their rights. Matilda Joslyn Gage, who worked closely with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, included a discussion of “the matriarchate” of the Iroquois in the first chapter of Woman, Church, and State. She received the name “She Who Holds the Sky” on initiation into the Wolf Clan of the Mohawk tribe. Writing that “the division of power between the sexes in this Indian republic was nearly equal,” she concluded that “never was justice more perfect, nor civilization higher” than among the Iroquois.  She argued that the Iroquois conferacy was the model for the American democracy.

Barbara Alice Mann’s Iroquoian Women provides convincing proof that patriarchy is not the only way to organize society and that another way is possible—way that celebrates co-operation and sharing rather than exclusion and domination.


Carol P. Christ is an internationally known feminist writer, activist, and educator living in Heraklion, Crete. Carol’s recent book written with Judith Plaskow, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology, is on Amazon. A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess is on sale for $9.99 on Amazon. Carol  has been leading Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete for over twenty years: join her in Crete. Carol’s photo by Michael Honneger.

Listen to Carol’s a-mazing interview with Mary Hynes on CBC’s Tapestry recorded in conjunction with her keynote address to the Parliament of World’s Religions.

Categories: Egalitarian Matriarchy, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Indigenous Spirituality, Matriarchy

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19 replies

  1. A wonderful post on an extremely important topic. It’s so easy to forget the many cultures that are all around us today and in the recent past in which women hold great power and use it to benefit all. I’ve read that there were a number of women European settlers in America who became part of Native American communities in one way or another and chose to stay in those communities when their male relatives came to “rescue” them. It’s clear from your post and Mann’s book why they made that choice.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on Thesseli.


  3. Thank you for telling the story of Sky Woman and her Daughter Lynx and how they are still with us as Grandmother Moon and Mother Earth. I love knowing that Susan B Anthony’s initiation into the Wolf Clan. Mann’s book sounds like a must-read. Thanks for introducing FAR readers to her work.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Nor Susan B. but Matilda G. who was more or less written out of the suffrage movement by SBA and ECs when she formed her own women’s suffrage/rights groups based on the principle of that Christianity was part of the problem.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Matilda Joslyn Gage was either a Unitarian or a Universalist (I forget which one, since the two denominations have been merged since 1961).


      • Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a Unitarian. Matilda Joslyn Gage was a freethinker as far as I know.

        Here is one of her statements:
        That the Christian Church, of whatever name, is based on the theory that woman was created secondary and inferior to man, and brought sin into the world and necessitated the sacrifice of a Savior.
        That Christianity is false and its foundation a myth, which every discovery of science shows to be as baseless as its former belief that the earth is flat.
        That every Christian Church is the enemy of liberty and progress and the chief means of enslaving woman’s conscience and reason, and, therefore, as the first and most necessary step toward her emancipation, we should free her from the bondage of the Church.

        Both Matilda J G;s childhood home and her marital home were stations on the Underground Railroad and she took credit (not her husband) for offering her home as a safe place for runaway slaves.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Hi Carol, I looked and looked online, because I know that Unitarian Universalist women have celebrated Matilda Joslyn Gage’s life. And what I found is that she’s listed on one site as a UU and on another as both a Unitarian and a Theosophist. But the most interesting thing I learned was that Matilda Joslyn Gage gave her name to the “the Matilda effect,” because she was mostly written out of (patriarchal) history. Here’s what I found: “In 1993, scientific historian Margaret W. Rossiter coined the term “Matilda effect”, after Matilda Gage, to identify the social situation where woman scientists inaccurately receive less credit for their scientific work than an objective examination of their actual effort would reveal.”

        Liked by 1 person

    • I too, loved hearing the story of Sky Woman.


  4. As usual, brava! Lots of information today’s world needs to know. Because I have always found it preposterous that a single god created the world out of nothing, I find the Iroquoian stories very wise. Hooray for mother and daughter! And for all the good work they did. Are still somehow doing? And hooray (sort of) for the division of labor in which men did the work of “external relations” while the women did the homework (so to speak).

    I edited a book a few years ago about Native children who were captured by white missionaries in the late 19th century and stripped of their culture and language. That is still happening. Under the Abuser-in-Chief, it’s no doubt worse. For all of us.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. As usual, I have too many thoughts to comment upon after reading this excellent article.
    One point stands out because I have never seen it in print before…

    “Mann argues that references to a “Great Spirit” as the highest power in the Iroquoian pantheon emerged in response to Christian missionizing and conquest. In contrast, she argues that the Iroquois recognize many spirits and the need to keep everything in balance. Iroquoian myths are not intended to provide information about another world.”

    This Great Spirit – the big white god in the sky in disguise – is definitely a westernized concept that was projected onto Indigenous peoples by Europeans when they first encountered them. “Unfortunately, today, mainly as a result of colonization/ christianity, the concept of Great Spirit is understood by many Native peoples as a sort of “highest power.”

    Even so, today Indigenous peoples continue to recognize many spirits in the form of animals and birds, each having specific attributes, and spheres of influence (much like archetypes).

    This is not an either or thing. These animal spirits are seen as guides, helping to keep the world in balance, but also as messengers from unseen worlds. -“both and” perspective.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Thanks, Carol. Barbara Mann’s book sounds like a must-read, especially for me, since family legends say that we have Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) ancestors.

    I’ve long known the Sky Woman story, but never heard about her daughter and grandsons. I love that myth as Mann tells it, because it demonstrates the primary significance of women, but also, like the social structure of the people, models the significance of all voices in the nation. Thank you for bringing information about another egalitarian matriarchy to us.


  7. I appreciate how this article highlights competing narratives, and how shifting perspective radically alters the perception. How interesting to know that Great Spirit was a linguistic accommodation to theism.


  8. Carol, Thank you for this wonderful insight into Iroquois culture and the love & power that women held & hold ;)) I also really loved the video, brought me to tears.
    Hope you are well,
    Linda (from 2017 goddess tour)


  9. Amazing. It just goes to show us all how important all these earth cultures are. It is as if they protect, keep, honor and love all this special knowledge. I have a friend who has a granddaughter names Lynx. I am going to send her a link to this.
    Thank you.


  10. Thanks for this post, Carol, and for the video. My Native American Spirituality professor, who was Wampanoag, said that the women made decisions but the white men would only deal with the Native American men so the men took over and many Native Americans today have forgotten this and think it was always this way.

    Liked by 1 person

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