LaDuke: The time for women leaders

"Women often work through relationships, are seen as nurturing, equitable and patient in social conditions, that’s how many problems can be solved."

Winona LaDuke
Winona LaDuke

"At your birth you are first touched by women and in your death, you are cared for by the hands of women. It’s good to honor women."

That’s an Anishinaabe teaching.

“Mindimooyenh,” the Anishinaabe word for elder woman means, “the one who holds it together.” That’s a recognition of the role of women in a society. And it’s a role of women in many societies, particularly traditional societies: Women hold together families, organizations, and work. Women often work through relationships, are seen as nurturing, equitable and patient in social conditions, that’s how many problems can be solved.

Women of all cultures hold it together and are not often recognized with a lot of accolades for our hard work. Nor are women paid at the same rate as men. Women’s’ work in the home is taken for granted, and often invisible. (I just watched “Bad Moms” to remind myself). In the best world, men and women work together and are both treated with respect.

Many Native societies highly value the leadership of women. The U.S. systems of governance, houses, and representational democracy were based on teachings from the Iroquois Confederacy, or the Six Nations. That’s where Benjamin Franklin and others came to see how a government system — including a confederacy, a representational democracy and one which had buried weapons under a tree of peace — could exist for hundreds of years. That system included clan mothers and chiefs. Women made the final decisions.


“The clan mothers are the leaders when it came to voicing opinions of the people. They have the first and last say as to what the Chiefs do to help the people. They meet and tell the chief what the people want to be done,” explains the website of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin. The Onondaga, another member of the Six Nations Confederacy website states: “The Clan Mother holds much weight in the Haudenosaunee. The Clan Mother is a leader not only of her clan, but of the nation as well. The Clan Mother selects their spokesman (Hoyane or Chief) to represent them in council. If their Hoyane doesn’t represent their clan, the Clan Mother has the authority to remove their leader as well after warnings. The Hoyane and the Clan Mother work together to best represent the people of her clan.”

Sadly those who drafted governing documents omitted the notes on matriarchs and governance, excluding women from leadership. Indeed, the only people who could vote were white men who owned land until 1919 when women received voting rights with the 19th amendment.

There are many nations with women in leadership, Canada and the U.S. are not two of them. Until this last election, Congress was pretty much all guys. Some 90% of the lawmakers were male, 89% in the House of Representatives and 93% in the Senate now, women make up just over a quarter of all members of the 117th Congress — the highest percentage in U.S. history. That’s big times.

This is an opportunity to be better: More thinkers and problem solvers at the table are best for the people. We could hold a lot of things together if we think like women and add more to make the world a better place. That’s if we get a seat at the table. And, as Women’s History Month draws to a close, that’s worth thinking about.

There will be more women coming soon. The birth ratio is changing, particularly in communities with significant exposure to persistent organic pollutants. A University of Michigan study with an Anishinaabe community in Ontario found almost two-thirds girls and one-third boys birthed during a short time period. They associate this with the pollutants.

Aamjiwnaang received international attention in 2005 after a study reported that boys accounted for only 35% of recent births in the community. “Chemical valley” is a region along the U.S.-Canada border near Lake Huron with more than 50 multinational industrial facilities operating in a 20-mile area, including oil refineries and chemical production facilities. Many of the compounds associated with these production processes are polluting the region and are known to block estrogen levels, which is a crucial hormone in fetal development.

The study measured the chemical pollutants directly in the blood, urine, and hair samples of people in the Onkweonwe community, concluding that “mothers and children in the Aamjiwnaang region are exposed to a number of environmental pollutants.”

In 2009 these facilities collectively released more than 110 million kilograms of pollution into the air. About 60% of these occurred within a few miles of Aamjiwnaang. All these chemicals are potent neurotoxins, carcinogens, and endocrine inhibitors.


The changing birth rates are not unique to Aamjiwnaang. Studies suggest that declining male births during the last 50 years (the time when these chemicals have been introduced into our bodies and environments) in industrialized countries, including Canada, the United States ( Allan, et al. 1997 ), Sweden, Germany, Finland, Denmark, and the Netherlands ( Davis, et al. 1998 ) could be attributed to environmental contaminants and endocrine disruption, writes one publication.

The future will have more women. Women generally outlive men by 10 years, and so, there will likely be a lot more mindimooyehnaag, or elder women as well. Maybe we can see how women provide leadership for the decades ahead and share leadership. Let us train clan mothers and new leaders. It’s time to give it a try.

Winona LaDuke is executive director, Honor the Earth, and an Ojibwe writer and economist on Minnesota’s White Earth Reservation. She is also owner of Winona's Hemp and a regular contributor to Forum News Service.

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