Gender, Native American Women & the Cult of True Womanhood

Native American woman with her child, two views, from Thomas Hariot, A brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia

Theda Perdue in “Southern Indians and the Cult of True Womanhood” argues that an integral part of the cultural transformation of Southern Indians was a redefinition of gender roles. The acculturation of Indian women to Euro-American norms required that they conform to ideals characterized by “purity, piety, domesticity and submissiveness,” what Barbara Welter has called the “cult of true womanhood.” A nineteenth-century ideal that extended from the middle class, this notion of womanhood had roots deep in Christianity and western social prescriptions. The eventual adoption of Euro-American gender norms by Indian women, particularly the Cherokee, from the late eighteenth century to Indian Removal (1838) was a powerful factor in the destruction of Native American culture. With acculturation came the destruction of customary ideas of gender and power. Native societies were not a monolith, and the degree of acculturation to western ideals varied among the many native societies.

Race, gender and power within Native and Euro-American cultures were addressed in very different ways and in these differences were the seeds of conflict that would eventually decimate Southern Indian tribes along the eastern seaboard and lead to removal. The civilization programs initiated by the United States government urged native women to adopt European standards of womanhood and used the tools of education and religion to assist in the process. Cherokees were urged to adopt normative standards of white society and “changing gender roles were one manifestation of this.” Females were encouraged to spin instead of farm, practice homemaking, and sacrifice their political voice amid changing patterns of settlement and landholding. Between 1800 and 1817 the United States focused their efforts on bringing about these changes among southern tribes. By 1830 when the government moved toward Indian removal, the Cherokee, after experimenting with “denationalization and integration into the white community,” developed a policy of separatism and nationalism that fanned the fire to remove the tribe to the west. Holding on to tradition amid land cessions, economic crises and encroachment proved a daunting task for Native Americans and led to eventual accommodation.


To understand the redefinition of gender roles as a function of cultural change, it is first necessary to examine the inherent cultural assumptions about gender within the Euro-American and Native cultures. Europeans brought to the New World ethnocentric notions about race, gender and power that shaped the relations that were established with indigenous peoples around the globe. By the time the English arrived in the New World, they had been exposed to decades of information from the travel narratives of the Spanish about foreign people and places. Encounters with natives “had already taken place in parlors and reading rooms” in England and created a “battery of assumptions and predispositions about race, femininity, sexuality, and civilization” that the colonists brought to America. Descriptions of indigenous Americans ranged from “noble savages” who were a “well-shaped and clean made people” to “filthy,” “slovenly people” who “seldom wash their shirts.” A European observer claimed, “their living is scanty, for they use their money to buy whiskey rather than more necessary things.” William Bartram, a naturalist of the eighteenth century, noted Native American affinity for alcohol saying, “the dejected lifeless sots would pawn everything they were in possession of for a mouthful of spirits to settle their stomachs.”

Not only were native social habits observed with wonder and disdain, but religious life was also often assessed from an ethnocentric perspective. William Byrd observed in 1728 the religious beliefs of a Saponi Indian guide in North Carolina and concluded:

Indeed, the Indian notion of a future happiness is a little gross and sensual, like Mahomet’s Paradise. But how can it be otherwise, in a people that are contented with nature as they find her and have no other lights but what they receive from purblind tradition.

Young virgin covering her breast, from Thomas Hariot, A brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia

Gender was an important tool in the process of conveying differences between Europeans and the people that they encountered. “Cultural differences in gender divisions of labor, sexual practices, and other signifiers of gender identity such as clothing or hair significantly influenced how European and indigenous people perceived each other,” asserts scholar Kathleen Brown. By historicizing sexual difference, examination of the connections between claims to power and unexamined assumptions about what is natural can be achieved. Through examination of the cultural encounters that extended from Europe to Africa and the Americas it is evident the “centrality of gender to colonial exchanges and the contests for power.” Jennifer Morgan argues that a “gendered whiteness” underscored European expansionism and colonial travel narratives “relied on gender to convey an emergent notion of racialized difference.”

Europeans had a long history of identifying non-Europeans through “monstrous physiognomy or sexual behavior of women.” Immodesty, nakedness, and the tattooing of the body were all deviant sexual behaviors and this concern with deviant sexuality was typically articulated through the description of women. In native nakedness and adornments, Native American women were unfamiliar to Europeans, yet the native woman in her role as mother, sexual victim or even sexually arousing female evoked the familiar. In depictions of indigenous people, the familiar was juxtaposed against the unfamiliar, bringing to the home audience recognizable attributes mixed with the foreign. In the late sixteenth century, Thomas Hariot illustrated this in his description of native women in Virginia:

In their goinge they carrye their hands danglinge downe, and air dadil in a deer skinne verye excellentlye wel dressed, hanginge downe from their navel unto the mydds of their thighs, which also covereth their hinder partz. The reste of their bodies are all bare. The forr parte of their haire is cutt shorte, the rest is not over longe, thinne, and softe, falling down about their shoulders…Their foreheads, cheeks, chynne, armes and leggs are pounced (pierced). About their necks they wear a chaine, either pricked or painted.

Two hundred years later, William Bartram observed in 1791 that Indian women painted their bodies “when disposed to grant certain favours to the other sex.” He further noted the aberrant practice of child marriage and polygamy:

It is common for a great man amongst them, who has already half a dozen wives if he sees a child of eight or nine years of age who pleases him …to marry her.

From the earliest encounters with Native Americans, a premise was established that used gender to express the racial difference between Europeans and indigenous people. On this premise developed the Americas, and the consequent clash of cultures would intensify as colonization and permanent settlements developed. As Euro-American culture evolved along patriarchal and hierarchal lines, native cultures, either through prolonged contact or force, eventually faced the challenge of western influence on their way of life.

To further understand the redefinition of gender roles as a function of cultural change it is necessary to define traditional Native American gender ideals within the context of Euro-American gender prescriptions in the early nineteenth century. The first fifty years of the New Republic was a time of intense socio-economic change and instability, a time when “America depended on her mother to raise up a whole generation of Christian statesmen” and represent everything “beautiful and holy.” The ideology of true womanhood underscored the civilization programs of the United States government in this period and undermined and challenged traditional gender constructions within Native American societies. Barbara Welter in “The Cult of True Womanhood” contends that the attributes of a true woman, the archetypal female of the nineteenth century, can be divided into four essential virtues- purity, piety, submissiveness and domesticity. This woman had the obligation to uphold these qualities and “with them she was promised happiness and power.” This gender prescription provided the model by which American women were measured and crystallized with industrialization. This ideal was perpetuated from the pulpit to the schoolhouse to convince women that they had the best of both worlds- power and virtue- despite circumscribed of full citizenship.

Attached to this female ideal were important notions about power and sexuality. Society was hierarchical, patriarchal, and “women did not play a determining role…they participated in the hierarchy only as daughters and wives, not as individuals.” Gerda Lerner asserts that in the years following the American Revolution egalitarian ideology was replaced by the “hierarchical concepts of colonial life” and the ability of women to engage in public life, especially middle-class women, “deteriorated relative to the advances made by men.” She argues that these early years of the Republic brought:

deterioration in the economic opportunities open to women, a relative deterioration in their political status, and a rising level of expectation and subsequent frustration in a privileged elite group of educated women. It was in these decades that the values and beliefs that clustered around the assertion “Woman’s place is in the home” changed from being descriptive of an existing reality to becoming an ideology.

In 1834 the English writer Harriet Martineau illustrated this when he complained that in America “woman’s intellect is confined, her morals crushed, her health ruined, her weaknesses encouraged, and her strength punished.” This reality of inferiority did not go unchallenged as Estelle Freedman notes in her study of nineteenth-century sexuality. She argues, “because historians have focused largely on women’s sexual behavior and on middle-class sexual ideas, we have an incomplete and possibly distorted vision of how most people acted or thought.” Regardless, a true woman was expected to uphold this gender ideal.

Where the true woman’s sphere was narrow, the Native American woman’s sphere was open. She was liberated in contrast to the true woman and experienced degrees of economic, political, and social power. Cherokee women’s economic role, independence, matrilineal family organization, and political voice challenged Euro-American notions of order and propriety. As Kathryn Holland Braund notes in her work on Creek Indians, “adult women…performed agricultural labor, tended children, processed deerskins and prepared food.” Too, women maintained personal freedom of choice as William Bartram observed:

“they marry for only a years-time and according to ancient custom at the expiration of the year they renew the marriage… if separation occurs the mother takes the children under her own protection.”

Interracial unions, often numerous, were commonplace and produced leaders within a nation.

A great source of native women’s power was in their role as farmer. Seneca women, for example, controlled the food supply in their society and determined the allocation of food in times of war or hunting. Women elders had political authority and told American army officers during the American Revolution “to hear and listen to what we, women shall speak, as well as to the sachems, for we are the owners of the land, -and it is ours.” Sarah Winnemucca, a Paiute, further illustrated the power of women in an 1891 speech:

The women know as much as the men do, and their advice is often asked…. The council-tent is our Congress, and anybody can speak who has anything to say, women and all. They are always interested in what their husbands are doing and thinking about. And they take some part even in the wars. They are always near at hand when fighting is going on, ready to snatch up their husbands and carry them off if wounded or killed…. If women could go into your Congress, I think justice would soon be done to the Indians.

Cherokee women shared similar freedoms within their culture. In 1781 Nancy Ward, Beloved Woman of the Cherokee, called for peace with John Sevier in Tennessee and told him to take the treaty back to “his women” for ratification. Ward and other Cherokee did not realize that women did not decide matters of war and peace in the white man’s world. “The Cherokees understood what it meant to be a woman or a man,” Theda Perdue contends, but gender did not shape their organization of the world as it did in Euro-American culture. Gender-specific social responsibilities were essential contributions each sex made to the well-being of the group and were not based on a system of gender inequality. Cherokees lived in concentrated communities with complex institutional and ceremonial life where women worked in the fields, cooked, weaved and reproduced in a matrilocal and matrilineal society.

The catalyst for gender transformation among the Cherokee by the nineteenth century was the economic crisis brought about by the illegal sale of traditional hunting grounds in Kentucky by a few Cherokee in 1775 coupled with the devastating effects of eighteenth-century war, disease, and encroachment. By 1785 the first treaty signed between the United States and the Cherokee reduced Cherokee territory by two-thirds. Subsequent treaties further reduced land, and by 1819 the Cherokee controlled a mere 12000 acres, with New Echota in Georgia the central town. In the first fifty years of the Republic a policy of pacification or civilization of the five southern tribes was pursued by the United States, and the Cherokee embraced the policies benefiting from the agricultural training and “progress.”

The extent to which the redefinition of gender occurred among Cherokee women is an important question. Many Cherokee favored ending polygamy, infanticide, and limiting the power of native women, practices deeply rooted in the culture but impediments to gaining approval from the United States government. Persistence of old customs, primarily among women, continued despite the pressure to fully adopt new cultural mores. Amid war and disease, land cessions, and civilization efforts by the US government, Cherokee women in the early Republic continued traditional roles and practices. This was a double-edged sword because the persistence of traditional women’s roles attracted the attention of removal proponents and became “emblematic of the failure of the civilization program, the recalcitrance of the Cherokee and the immutability of race.”

Despite the persistence of traditional customs, in the New Republic, Cherokee women served as intermediaries between tradition and change. Using the art of basket weaving to illuminate the changes in the lives of Cherokee women, scholar Sarah Hill claims:

Within and between households women bridged differences between past and present, prosperous and sparse, and Indian and white. They neither abandoned Cherokee customs nor denied white influences. They did not merge passively into new identities nor hold intractably to old ones.

Two women who exemplified this bridge in their life and work in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were Peggy Scott Vann Crutchfield and Nancy Ward. They were born into an age of change in the Cherokee nation, and each woman served as a guide to reconcile the differences between the two cultures they daily encountered.

In 1801 the Moravians were given approval by the Cherokee Council to open a school in North Georgia called the Springplace Mission, a place where “Moravian missionary women and the women of the Cherokee Nation encountered each other for the first time.” The land was given to the Moravians by James Vann, a wealthy Cherokee leader of mixed parentage, and adjacent to his plantation, Diamond Hill. The first student at the mission was his daughter, Sally, and a few years after his death in 1810, his wife, Peggy Scott Vann, became the first convert of the mission.

The daughter of a Scottish Royal Agent and a Cherokee woman, Peggy Scott Vann Crutchfield was fluent and literate in English and served as an intermediary between the Cherokee, who spoke little English, and the Moravians, who spoke German. After her conversion in 1810, she translated sermons, assisted the missionaries in trade, and served as an interpreter. Although she adopted many western customs, like Christianity, she did not abandon traditional Cherokee practices. She used conjurers for healing, wove baskets and spun cloth, cut down trees and worked in the fields, and retained her name and property after marriage. A plantation mistress, she owned land and slaves and had the financial ability to float between two worlds. While accepting attributes of one, she did not give up traditional values of the other.

Nancy Ward (1738–1824), like Peggy Scott Vann Crutchfield, was a Cherokee elite related to Attakullakulla. Ward won the honored title of Ghighua, or Beloved Woman or War Woman, after taking up her dying husband’s arms (during a 1755 battle against the Creeks) and leading a war party to victory. At eighteen she earned this great title and spent her life in a position of leadership among the Cherokee. She served as a representative of her people and urged them throughout her life to end land cession, calling for war against Americans in her late years if land cession did not cease.

Ward, like Crutchfield, participated in the complexities of changing societies and married an Irish man, reared three children, and spoke English. However, her life and work are subject to new interpretations that address whether or not she betrayed her people. In the 1760s Ward warned British officials of potential raids on nearby settlements by dissident Chickamaugas and saved the life of one captive, Lydia Bean. While in captivity, Bean taught Ward two gendered skills: sewing and dairy farming. These skills were new to the Cherokee way of life, and from warning the British to the adoption of European-based domestic skills, some scholars have assessed Ward as selling out the Cherokee people. Her political efforts proved the contrary. In “Indian Women as Cultural Mediators” Clara Sue Kidwell argues the following:

Was Nancy Ward a traitor to her people…As a beloved woman and councilor at a traditional Cherokee peace town, she was committed to preserving peace…She played her role as it was defined in her own culture- advocate of peace. To that end she protected American settlers and informed British military agents of the hostile activities of Cherokee men.

Too, Ward “did not seek war, but neither did she counsel peace when she felt compromise would hurt her tribe.”

Cherokee women did not readily welcome the cult of true womanhood and many of their customary gender roles endured well into the nineteenth century. Although land cessions, war, disease, and encroachment by white settlers disrupted Cherokee life, forced civilization destroyed the legacy of power and influence of Cherokee women. Euro standards of womanhood did not allow for women to act as equals and relegated them in a patriarchal society. As Cherokee men transitioned from hunters to farmers, women moved from the farm to the domestic sphere. Economics facilitated the advance of this gender transformation, and the United States government's civilization demands added political momentum. Amid this whirlwind of change in the New Republic, Cherokee women adapted to new industries and customs to survive. With this process came the loss of traditional freedoms. Traditions were secondary to survival, yet despite civilization efforts, removal, and cultural suppression, Cherokee women endured.

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