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WOMEN’S AUTHORITY, WOMEN’S LIVES: The ERA or the Great Law of Peace?

WOMEN’S AUTHORITY, WOMEN’S LIVES:  The ERA or the Great Law of Peace?
Which amendment would meaningfully improve U.S. women’s lives — the ERA or the Great Law of Peace — sooner rather than later?

Posted March 29, 2018

I am 66-years old, a born feminist for many reasons, most of which still exist today. When the Women’s March came calling, I was one of the many women ready for the next wave.

Since January 21, 2017, I have been interested to watch newly woke American women search for their first action issues. At the same time, we long-time activists have been challenged to hone our focus to a higher-impact, intersectional, and unequivocal advocacy. I agree with women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred, who recently used a phrase I’d never heard: we need to “put women into the Constitution.” 

THE ERA (Equal Rights Amendment)
Ms. Allred was referring to the ERA. But I am not. As a pinnacle of feminist expression and being–not to mention political power–the Equal Rights Amendment never resonated with me. The substance of the amendment reads: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” Even now it seems tepid, words without action, a platitude likely needing further explication during long court cases—with no guarantee of meaningful improvement in most women’s lives.

In addition, although more and more conservative women identify as feminists, there seems to be something about the ERA that truly offends and scares some women, making deep divisions among American women likely to continue. Plus we now know that the rights of most U.S. men are at risk or meaningless when decision-making is still centered on white, over-rich males. I don’t see the ERA as a recipe for instant women’s rights and unity, not to mention women’s authority or world peace.  

So, as women have been gearing up for the 2018 elections—running for office, writing platforms, etc.—I have been dismayed at how much traction the ERA is getting compared to practical system issues that many women are already working on, e.g., food-and-farm justice, participatory democracy, Complete Streets, reproductive autonomy. Being a lifelong Illinois voter, a state that has not ratified the ERA, my dismay is that much sharper because there are better ways to codify women’s agency and self-determination, both on the state level and federally. 

Although most American schoolchildren know that the Iroquois League’s Great Law of Peace informed the U.S. Constitution, most of us did not learn the details. Apparently, most feminists still do not know the details. Luckily, in a single book of singing prose and living history, scholar Barbara Alice Mann dishes up the specifics—I might add, the juicy, sanity-inducing specifics. 

Iroquoian Women: The Gantowisas is an immersion into a sophisticated and harmonious society existing on this land for 500+ years before European settlements took hold. Chapter by chapter, Prof. Mann (Humanities, University of Toledo, member of the Bear clan, Seneca nation) unpacks the clan mothers’ central and public authority in politics, economics, social life, and spiritual activities. More to the point, Prof. Mann tells how Iroquoian women put themselves into the Constitution. 

Let me describe the “pretty facts” as Prof. Mann calls life organized by the Iroquoian clan mothers, the Gantowisas (also defined as government women, indispensable women, etc.). And let me ask American women, which amendment would meaningfully improve your life a year after taking effect—the ERA or the Great Law of Peace?

DETAILS of the Great Law of Peace
For example, if we were to vote today for a Constitutional amendment that would codify U.S. women’s personal and public authority, would you rather have the ERA or one of these powers of Iroquoian women’s councils:
(a) set the agenda for men’s councils including preferred options,
(b) appoint and remove chiefs,
(c) initiate and end war, or
(d) decide legal identity, who is a citizen? 

How about all those structures embedded and codified at once, as they were in the Great Law of Peace?

How about adding the women-run structures that assured economic equality for everyone:
(a) distribution hubs,
(b) “ownership” of the earth, and
(c) farming? 

Or living in a nation without the economic structures that cause disparities and despair? Prof. Mann identifies two key economic mistakes that the founding fathers made in drafting the U.S. Constitution:
(a) ignoring the reciprocal economic system of the Iroquois in favor of “bullyboy” economics, and
(b) “unfunded sovereignty”—trying to create a self-governing model without providing resources to voters.

How about living in a country whose guiding principles were regularly reviewed and updated through a 5-year sunset clause, which makes the Iroquois Constitution a living document with a constantly engaged populace?

I am not Native American Indian. Nor am I suggesting that U.S. women in 2018 can just pick and choose from the Iroquois Constitution. But I would like to propose a national discussion about how some of the Iroquoian structures, if adapted and adopted, might better support all American females, including the earth. 

How about a national book club to study the U.S. Constitution in comparison to the original model? In addition to Prof. Mann’s book, there are other useful resources. Consulting with living Haudenosaunee people would be basic to a successful national discussion.

Serendipitously, a museum exhibit on Iroquoian women is opening on March 24, 2018, at the Seneca Art & Culture Center at Ganondagan in New York: Hodinöhsö:ni’ Women: From the Time of Creation. Perhaps the time is now for an all-female discussion about our collective future, perhaps led by the experts on grassroots democracy — Haudenosaunee women.

I thank all the women who worked to promote the ERA and to keep the big-picture feminist movement alive all these years, when we didn’t know of better ways to express our political wisdom. But now we know. I for one would like the opportunity to work with indigenous American women and all other U.S. women to craft a comprehensive plan for codifying women’s rights and public authority, for the benefit of all life on earth, in the manner of grandmothers.

Resources for this blog:
Iroquoian Women: The Gantowisas, by Barbara Alice Mann (2000)
Basic Call to Consciousness, ed. by Akwesasne Notes (2005)
Iroquois Constitution, an English translation, by Arthur C. Parker.  Prepared by Gerald Murphy, The Cleveland Free-Net, the National Public Telecomputing Network.

PS  If I have misinterpreted or misrepresented any aspect of the Great Law of Peace, I hope someone will let me know. I will be happy to correct or clarify.