IRVING — Last week, women of the Seneca Nation of Indians celebrated the 50th anniversary of their right to vote in tribal affairs.
On Thursday, May 29, a luncheon was held at the Cattaraugus Territory, followed by a dinner at the Allegany Territory, during which various speakers reflected on the journey to women’s suffrage.
It begins much farther back than half a century ago, to ancient times of the Senecas, when women were often consulted on tribal matters and voted to select a new leader, when the time came.
According to a New York Times article from July 22, 1962, “Seneca women were political bosses. Names, property and clan citizenship were transmitted through the maternal line. Women owned children and arranged marriages. When a chief died, the matriarch called together the girls to choose a new leader.”
However, Seneca women were disenfranchised in 1845, over a controversial appointment for chief, and the men of the Senecas drafted a new constitution.
Over a century later, on May 23, 1964, women of the Nation finally regained their voice, but the battle was not easily won.
According to the Seneca Nation of Indians, the first record of Seneca women seeking the right to vote in Nation elections occurred at the Regular Session of Council Dec. 4, 1935, at the Allegany Courthouse in Jimersontown. According to Council minutes, George Patterson made a motion to consider the suffrage petition that one local newspaper, the then Syracuse Herald, claimed two-thirds of the women of the Nation had signed.
Several failed attempts followed as Nation women inched closer to their goal, as the former Dunkirk Evening Observer reported May 23, 1964, three referendums on the matter held since 1956 lost by less than 20 votes.
Finally, in March of 1964, Martha Flammang presented a petition containing 162 signatures to Council. She pledged “to wage an all-out campaign” to win the vote telling Council, “I have been turned down before, but turning me down is like picking me up,” according to the Nation. The referendum vote was held on May 23, 1964, and the amendment giving Seneca women the right to vote was approved 169 to 99.
Then President George Heron, a principal advocate for women’s suffrage, warned the potential all-male candidates in the upcoming November election that the women “outnumbered us and they intend to make their votes count.” The women voted in their first general election on Nov. 3, 1964.
At the luncheon, Nation leaders such as President Barry Snyder Sr. spoke of reading about women’s struggles for equality in other nations in world news, and the pride he felt celebrating 50 years of Seneca women’s right to vote.
“It took us longer than it should have, but we made it here,” said the president.
Treasurer Rodney Pierce spoke of the monumental vote in 1964, calling it “a sign of a new social contract, in which we all work together toward the common good.”
Snyder was not surprised the right decision was finally made by that Council, despite hurdles along the way.
“I have never seen a Seneca woman back down from a fight,” he said.
Is the next step a woman in the president’s seat? “The time has come for that as well,” Snyder said.
Also at the luncheon, current female council members honored women who went above and beyond their civic duty by listing the names of all women who served in office in Nation history and issued awards to current members in attendance for their service.
(This story appears in the June 5, 2014 edition of The Salamanca Press.)