When Hillary Clinton broke the longest-lasting glass ceiling in American politics by securing a major party’s nomination for president, the historical dimension of the achievement was clear to her. “Tonight’s victory is not about one person,” Clinton said following her primary win in New York State. “It belongs to generations of women and men who struggled and sacrificed and made this moment possible. In our country it started right here in New York, a place called Seneca Falls.”
And it happened not only because of the political strivings of European Americans but also because of the feminist example of Native Americans—a political lesson that later drove a tiny, aged Quaker minister to great lengths to save Indian lives on the other side of the continent.
That minister was Lucretia Mott. Along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mott led the first-ever convention on women’s rights in July 1848 at Seneca Falls. A small town in the Finger Lakes region, Seneca Falls was Stanton’s hometown, as it was for a large number of Quakers and abolitionists. Many of the delegates who attended the world’s first convention on women’s rights brought with them the philosophies and politics of progressive Quakerism and abolitionism. Mott added something extra to the mix: recent experience with the gender-equal political life of the Senecas, part of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy and the Native nation that gave Seneca Falls its name.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, right, is seen here with Susan B. Anthony, two of the organizers of the first women’s rights convention.
Years earlier, the Philadelphia meeting of Quakers to which Mott belonged had befriended the Senecas, helped them defeat the skullduggery of speculators out to steal their land, and set up a school and model farm on the Cattaraugus reserve, in the western part of New York State. Mott visited the reserve regularly and saw how Seneca women lived in a way Euro-American women could only imagine: free from domestic violence and sexual assault as well as able to own property, enter contracts, and divorce at will. In the early summer of 1848 Mott spent a month among the matrilineal Senecas and watched closely as men and women together debated reorganization of their tribal government.
Fresh off this practical lesson in gender-equal political power, Mott headed to Seneca Falls for the women’s rights convention. The Declaration of Rights and Sentiments that came from the gathering and would become the foundational document of American feminism reflected not only the aspirations of Quakers and abolitionists but also the lived reality of the powerful women of the Haudenosaunee.
When Mott learned 25 years later that President Ulysses S. Grant had approved the execution of six Modoc fighters for war crimes allegedly committed during the Modoc War, she remembered the debt she owed the Seneca women. Although 80 years old and frail, Mott refused to sit back and let injustice take its course on a military gallows in southern Oregon on October 3, 1873. President Grant, she discovered, was visiting financier and railroad magnate Jay Cooke at his mansion a short distance from her own modest country house outside Philadelphia. Mott resolved to drop in unannounced at Cooke’s, confront the president, and argue the Modocs’ cause to him in person.
A painting of Lucretia Mott 1793-1880), proponent of women’s rights.
Mott’s cheek flustered son-in-law Edward M. Davis. He explained the situation in Quaker English: “Mother, thee has no invitation, thee has not announced thy desire, etiquette demands thee to send first, and see if it will be agreeable and convenient.”
Channeling her inner Seneca, Mott would have none of it. “My spirit says go and it will not wait for etiquette,” she demanded. “My visit is urgent! Harness the horse!”
An amazed Grant received the uninvited Mott and heard her out. Passing blame in the way that is a political stock in trade, the president explained that he was being goaded by forces beyond his control to hang the Modocs. Then, leaning in close as if speaking to her alone, he whispered, “Madam, they shall not all be executed.”
And, indeed, Grant commuted the death sentences of two of the Modocs, saving them from the gallows at the last moment. They likely had no idea that they owed their lives to Mott and the women of the Seneca nation—the same women whose example would one day help lift Hillary Clinton toward the most powerful political role on the planet. Mott and her Haudenosaunee mentors would be proud.
The Wesleyan Methodist Church in Seneca Falls, New York was the site of the first Convention for Women’s Rights in 1848.
Robert Aquinas McNally is a writer and poet whose narrative nonfiction book “The Modoc War: A True and Tragic Story of Genocide at the Dawn of America’s Gilded Age” will be published by the Bison Books trade imprint of the University of Nebraska Press in fall 2017. Find out more about his work atRAMcNally.com.
For Further Reading
Cromwell, Otelia. “Lucretia Mott.” Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958.
Gambino, Lauren. “Hillary Clinton’s Rise Earns Place of Honor in Birthplace of U.S. Women’s Suffrage,” June 18, 2016.
Hagan, Willow Michele. “Iroquois Native American Cultural Influences in Promoting Women’s Rights Ideologies.”
Hare, Lloyd C.M. “The Greatest American Woman: Lucretia Mott.” New York: The American Historical Society, Inc., 1937.
“Inspiring Women’s Rights: Haudenosaunee Life Stimulates Historical Movement,” updated March 17, 2014.
McMillen, Sally G. “Seneca Falls and the Origins of the Women’s Rights Movement.” Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Odrowaz-Sypniewska, Margaret. “The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) and Feminism.”
“Sisters in Spirit: The Iroquois Influence on Early American Feminists,” an interview with Sally Roesch Wagner.
“Visionary Women: The Haudenosaunee and the U.S. Women's Rights Movement,” an interview with Sally Roesch Wagner and Jeanne Shenandoah, March 20, 2014.
Wagner, Sally Roesch. Sisters in Spirit: The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Influence on Early American Feminists. Summertown, TN: Native Voices, 2001.
Wagner, Sally Roesch. “The Untold Story of the Iroquois Influence on Early Feminists.”