Address to the
Feminist Family Values Forum
by Gloria Steinem
also agree with Cherokee scholar and writer
Rayna Green, who says that true feminismwomen's
liberation, womanism, self-government, autonomy,
self-authority, self-determination, whatever
we want to call it--is really memory on
this continent. Because many of our ideas
about individual human dignity and democracy
within families--about non-hierarchical
forms of organization and balance with nature--came
from cultures that were already on this
continent millennia before Europeans arrived.
That's where they were learned, not from
some idea of democracy in Greece that actually
had a very limited idea of democracy and
kept slaves. Yet Native groups have been
so de-humanized by history in order to justify
their persecution and genocide that we ourselves
don't understand how much our ancestors
learned from them.
We must remember that what now is called
"Women's History," "Native American History,"
"African American History," or "Asian American
History" really ought to be called "Remedial
History." I don't know about you, but I
didn't learn about the female plus people-of-color
part of history when I was going to school.
So I am continually amazed and angered when
I learn that, for example, the entire state
of Florida was governed by a coalition of
Seminole Indians and freed or runaway slaves.
For many years, they fought off the entire
U.S. government. Or when I learn that Mozart
had an older sister, Nannerl, whom he considered
"the really talented one." She was sent
home to marry, but some musicologists think
compositions attributed to him might really
Somebody gave me a button once that said,
"The truth will make you free, but first
it will piss you off."
I also didn't learn in school that our form
of government and constitution were inspired
in part by the Iroquois Confederacy. Of
course, our forefathers still didn't get
it right; they left out women, who declared
war and peace, and chose the male chief
in the Iroquois Nations. I didn't know until
a few years ago that the women of the abolitionist
and suffragist movements--like Sojourner
Truth, Matilda Gage, Elizabeth Cady Stanton
and others--knew, visited with, learned
from, and wrote about women in those Native
American cultures, and held such cultures
up as examples of the kind of society they
were striving to create.
In a way, early American feminists were
talking about feminism as theory. But indigenous
women were often living it as practice.
Moreover, when Engels wrote his essay on
The Origin of the Family, Private
Property and the State, he based
much of it on the work of anthropologist
Lewis Henry Morgan and his published studies
of the Iroquois Confederacy.
So indigenous cultures were and are among
the roots of feminism, socialism, the idea
of communalism, communal ownership, a different
relationship with nature, and so on. They
still exist in some form on every continent--embattled,
almost annihilated, subject to genocide.
But they still exist.
I think that gives us some hope. It isn1t
that we can go back to the past. We can't.
Nor should we romanticize the past. But
we need to know that changes we're now told
are impossible--living with feminist values,
changed forms of organization, our insistence
that violence is never an acceptable way
of solving conflict but only for self-defense--all
these have existed in some form. When they
tell us, "You can't change that; it's human
nature," we need to have the knowledge that
for 95% of human time on earth, there existed
a very different vision of human nature.
I think the first thing we need to re-consider
about "family values" is saying "family"
in the singular. That is a right wing trip
altogether. The minute you say "family"
in the singular, it defines one kind of
family as normal and renders all other forms
peripheral or wrong. The truth is there
have always been many, many different kinds
of familiesextended families, communal
families, families in which, in the African
tradition, children were raised by the grandparents,
because it was thought that someone young
enough to have a child was not wise enough
to raise it.
There have always been committed, nurturing
relationships between men, between women
and also chosen relationships, adopted relationships.
Certainly, native cultures on this continent
often adopted people who were of different
nations, different races into their extended
families. The patriarchal, nuclear family
that we are supposed to think is the normal
and only one, that kind of family is really
only about one-hundred-and-fifty-years-old,
and is almost entirely the function of industrialization
and capitalism. It was a form invented to
make people portable, so they could be shipped
about at the will of their employers, something
that could not be done with big, extended,
Even in recent agricultural communities,
women in patriarchal families still played
important economic roles. It was industrialization
that took fathers out of the home and made
them the only wage earners for the first
timecausing women and children to be entirely
dependent on men.
The idea that there is only one family form
is really pure bullshit.