Historically Oneida women were very important in leadership within the Oneida Nation. It was the women who were Clanmothers, a very significant decision maker in our culture and government. Clanmothers were the matriarchal rulers who determined who the leadership was and then held them accountable. Every child is born into the clan of his or her mother. Clanmothers also determine who the chiefs are and how they will make decisions in the interest of the people and the next seven generations.
In the 1800s Oneida women had industrious roles as gardeners, basket makers, healers, and yet still made time to be homemakers raising families. Oneida women were often times the authoritative figure. Through many historical accounts child rearing and discipline was the mother’s prerogative.
There were various levels of knowledge among the use of medicinal herbal preparations for healing in our community. Many Oneida women did their own doctoring at home, made simple poultice and teas for most aches and pains, and other women with further medicinal knowledge were called for more serious ailments and illnesses. Oneida women were the glue to their families as they held many roles both inside and outside the home.
In the 1900s the Oneida government began to see a change in governance. The Oneida Business Committee was a part of a re-organization in 1936 with the adaptation of a new constitution that created great change in traditional Oneida governance. With the new constitution came an elected system which determined leadership. The Oneida Business Committee was comprised of a Chairman, Vice Chairman, Treasurer, and Secretary. As the government changed, so did the roles of woman, who stepped out from behind the scenes into the forefront as elected officials.
Numerous times in our history the Oneida people elected women to the Oneida Business Committee. The very first committee, in fact, had a woman, Lydia Powless, elected among the four positions. Then in 1963, Oneida elected their very first woman Chair, Irene Moore. Since then there has been women representation on each and every committee.
Throughout Oneida history women have been the catalyst for change in the community and the government. With a true vested interest in the future of their children and grandchildren, Oneida women worked hard to realize their vision for a better quality of life. The desire for better education, adequate housing, healthcare and living in a safe environment is reflected in the growth on the Oneida Reservation in the last 179 years.