Brown (1970) argues convincingly that the key to elevated status for Iroquois women lay in their relationship to production and the distribution of wealth. As in a great number of horticultural societies, women were the exclusive cultivators. However a frequent accompaniment of matriliny—the manipulation of access rights to seeds and to arable land by matrilineal descent groups themselves—gave Iroquois women exclusive control over the production and storage of food. They were not only the primary producers, but collectively owned the means of production as well.Google Books continues that passage here.
The significance of this control for the manipulation of power in Iroquois society was tremendous. Since food was wealth, and since the matrons of matrilineal descent groups supervised its distribution, women had available to them a mechnanism for giving or withholding rewards. Women of the longhouse held in common a store of food, which they systematically allocated to their men and children. Since they had labored collectively to cultivate these food crops—and on land belonging to them by virtue of their common kinship—women were not obliged to feed men on demand, but more did so as an act of good faith. The elder women would simply ask any male member of the longhouse whose behavior they viewed as objectionable to leave. Such eviction notices were apparently taken quite seriously, and provided an efficient instrument for terminating unsuccessful marriages and for eliminating persons incompatible with the larger longhouse membership.
But the power of women among the Iroquois extended far beyond the domestic unit. As in most matrilineal societies, the senior women or matrons of lieages and clans played an important role in political and social policy decisions. The Iroquois confederacy or League was headed by a council of chiefs. These representatives to the governing body were male, but gained and held office only with female approval.
Recommended: "Engels and the Origin of Women's Oppression" by Sharon Smith