Lady Liberty: The Changing Face of American Freedom

by Lisa Guernsey

We see her everyday of our lives: as Lady Freedom atop the Capitol dome, an everyday backdrop to the evening news, or as the Statue of Liberty, flashing across our TV screens in endless commercials and news spots. The silent, blank face of our "lady liberty"--wherever it appears--has become an omnipresent symbol of freedom to the people of the United States. We know her instantaneously, an American reflex built in since kindergarten.

But how well do we really know her? What does freedom truly mean? And how has its definition changed for different groups at different times? Reaching beyond the stone stares of these two American symbols may provide some clues to how Americans have perceived their own liberties and opportunities throughout history. Intended to stand as one overarching icon of the greatness of the United States, Lady Liberty today comes clad in several layers of significance--from the hypocrisy of slavery to the simultaneous welcome and rejection of immigrants. By exploring Liberty's historical and political roots, and by listening to the varying voices singing and lamenting Lady Liberty, we may uncover a more comprehensive understanding of how Americans interpret liberty.

Origins: The Female Form as Allegory

Women's bodies have represented countries since Western thought envisioned a New World. Reaching back to Pocahontas and further, a brief history of the use of the female form in paintings and statues explains some of the reasons behind America's obsession with female representations of freedom.

Politics: The Agendas Behind the Monuments

Recalling the political agendas shaping the evolution of both the Statue of Liberty and Lady Freedom brings us one step further toward appreciating the layers of meaning emanating from both statues.

Journeys: Tracing the Paths of our Lady Liberties

Both Lady Freedom and the Statue of Liberty were born on foreign soil. The stories of their journeys to the United States evoke coincidental yet ironic parallels to the plight of other first-generation Americans.

Ironies: Race, Gender and the Deception of "Freedom"

The United States may erect or endorse enormous monuments to freedom, but do these statues evoke anything close to reality? As women and African Americans found themselves shut out from the America's conception of freedom over the past century, Lady Freedom or the Statue of Liberty could become painfully ironic symbols of what was wrong with the United States, instead of what was right.

Expressed in Verse: The Poetry of Lady Liberty's Diverse Public

The following poems voice succinctly and sometimes poignantly the way Lady Liberty's image has been understood by varying groups of new and old Americans, serving as introductions to larger issues of immigration, patriotism, nationalism and apathy.

In Conclusion: Synthesizing the Layered Meanings

The Statue of Liberty and Lady Freedom may have been intended to offer one, overarching ideal. Their significance instead lies in their ability to be interpreted differently over time, offering Americans a look at how varied and dynamic their own interpretations can be.

Works Cited and Consulted
Thank Yous

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University of Virginia
May, 1995