Honoring the Women Who Came Before Us:
The Shoulders on Which We Stand
I have been blessed to be involved with a number of special women’s events and gatherings in recent years, from the Virginia Women’s Music Festival to the International Councils of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers. One of the treasures has been glimpsing my own foremothers, the women of my mother’s generation who laid the groundwork for the rich opportunities we enjoy today.
Many of the gatherings and leaders that have shaped women’s music, culture, and spirituality today began when I was growing up in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
This is true in the herbal community as well. In birthing the Southeast Wise Women’s Herbal Conference, I built on foundations laid by my Wise Woman Tradition mentor, Susun Weed, and by the vision of Gail Ulrich, founder of the New England Women’s Herbal Conference, Eaglesong Gardener (my first herbal teacher) in the Northwest, and Karen Aguiar and Terri Jensen in California, among others. Their commitment to women’s issues and natural healing inspired me to explore my personal power and the power of women coming together.
Last summer, I spent a weekend with the Where Women Gather group in Pennsylvania, and was privileged to meet organizers who have been involved for over two decades. It was gratifying to connect with sisters so far from my home in North Carolina. I was reminded of the strong web women weave across the country and the world on whose shoulders we now stand.
Inspired by this, I decided to make another stop along the way as we were headed up through New York State—a pilgrimage of sorts—in Seneca Falls, NY: the birthplace of modern American Feminism. It was here, in 1848, that Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott gathered like-minded women together at a convention, held at the Wesleyan Chapel, to address women’s rights. The result of this Women’s Rights Convention was the signing of the Declaration of Sentiments, which picked up where the Declaration of Independence left off and asserted, “…that all men and women are created equal.”
Now, the feminists who wrote this document, who were white women, were standing on some very strong shoulders themselves—in fact, the shoulders of the indigenous grandmothers of these lands. This area of upstate New York is Iroquois land, made up of six nations including the Seneca nation. Stanton and Mott were inspired by their frequent visits to the Seneca nation and to other Iroquois who lived nearby. Because the Iroquois society was, by nature, matrilineal and matrifocal, the suffragette leaders’ minds were opened to possibilities of equality for women that were far beyond the confines of the patriarchal governance, social, economic, and religious structures of their times.
The Declaration of Sentiments—carved in stone, with the signers’ names—is a profound, radical and stirring document, and it sparked the Suffragette movement. That spanned several generations and included leaders Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Matilda Joslyn Gage, Alice Paul, and countless others.
More than 70 years would pass before, in 1920, the 19th Amendment to our Constitution gave women the right to vote. 70 years of struggle, of feminist activists being misrepresented, slandered, harassed, beaten, jailed and vilified. 70 years. Both of my grandmothers were born before women had the right to vote in this country!
And then it took nearly 100 years from the ratification of the 19th Amendment for a woman to run for president as a candidate within a major party. And it did happen, within our lifetimes. It happened because generations of women did not lose sight of our shared purpose: to be equal, respected and effective participants in this society. Regardless of your personal political leanings, this was a historical marker in the progression of women’s rights.
Where else may we go from here, I mused, standing before the Declaration of Sentiments . . . I thought of the young women who will also be standing on the shoulders of our generation.
I was humbled to visit the very house and land where Elizabeth Cady Stanton lived and raised her seven children. As I rested below her chestnut tree and as I stood at the Wesleyan Chapel, where that first Women’s Rights Convention gathered, I had a very deep, very moving sense of my connection to those Suffragettes and to the generations of feminists who came after them.
I was aware of the debt of gratitude we, as women, owe to our foremothers. We all stand on the shoulders of giants. And I saw the progression that is possible through the generations, with perseverance and dedication to reshaping our lives and our culture—as well as our own thinking.
We now enjoy so many freedoms, and many young women seem to feel that feminism is an anachronism. It’s not. The need to remain active and vocal in the political and social process is vital. Our culture still puts constraints on women with unequal pay; unrealistic physical ideals and body shaming for women and girls; and systemic and endemic violence against women. As well as the racism that is compounded with sexism for women of color. My journey to Seneca Falls galvanized me for the work still to be done.
What I see all around me these days is women who want to both maintain the ground we’ve gained and to move forward . . . Women who are showing up, raising our voices, casting our votes, and linking our hearts with the brave, resilient women who have come before us and steadily follow the path that they have illuminated.
What was radical then, is common sense to us now—that women’s voices must be included and heard, through our votes in the political system. And as we honor the suffragettes, we are reminded to keep the course of our own radical pursuit of female-honoring thought and action. Having the privilege of witnessing the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers, with common threads from around the world, was a poignant reminder of the value of recognizing and learning from our female elders, those who birth and inspire us. The shoulders on which we are standing.
Corinna Wood is founder and director of Southeast Wise Women, as well as co-founder of Red Moon Herbs. With extensive training and experience in both herbal medicine and spiritual psychology for women, Corinna has been practicing, teaching, and carrying on the Wise Woman Tradition, based in honoring of women and the Earth, for over 25 years