Women and Lady Liberty

While racial hypocrisy within the symbolism of the Statue of Liberty requires some background, the gender implications of the Statue are inescapable. Larger than life but rendered motionless, the Statue of Liberty (as well as other female representations of American freedom, such as Crawford's Lady Freedom) is an object celebrated by men who valued the freedoms of republicanism for themselves, but not necessarily for their female counterparts. In fact, according to folklorist Barbara Babcock in "Taking Liberties, Writing from the Margins and Doing it with a difference," women were banned from participating in Liberty's dedication ceremony on October 26, 1886. "As the suffragettes who circled Bedloe's Island in a boat at the dedication announced through a megaphone, if Liberty got down off her pedestal, she would not have been allowed to vote in either France or America" (Babcock, 401).

Babcock's feminist approach to the Statue of Liberty merits exploration: Men, Babcock argues,

have not only excluded, ignored, or otherwise rendered women invisible, they have, for centuries, appropriated woman as a semiotic object and made her female form highly visible to represent their established order and to redress it.
In an effort to heighten momentum for their own projects, lady liberty can be seen as little more than a tool used by leading men to better their own situations. Undoubtedly, there are times throughout history when this point can be proven true. I would argue, however, that the Statue of Liberty and other female representations of freedom exude more than men's manipulation of women. The layers go deeper, past semiotics where images of women become objects of utility, to lifetimes of socialization in which images of women register feelings of desire and comfort.

The Statue of Liberty, for example, can be considered as a much a reflection of Bartholdi's admiration of his mother as a political pawn flailed by ambitious French statesmen. Bartholdi admits readily that the face of Liberty Enlightening the World is the face of his mother, Charlotte, a woman who endured Prussian occupation in her own home and whom Bartholdi forever tried to please (Trachtenberg, 60). Bartholdi modeled the arms after "the beautiful arms" of his wife (Babcock, 404). He designed Liberty to radiate the strength of the women around him, a far reach from ignoring the powers of women. In the Statue of Liberty, perhaps, lies a tribute to women, an ironic and probably unappreciated sentiment in the face of the brutal inequalities that plagued women's status at the date of Liberty's dedication and for decades afterward.

Without doubt, Liberty today can be appropriated in a myriad of ways that render women mere objects. The above cartoon plays on a quote by Jimmy Carter in 1976 in which he disclosed to Playboy that he had "lusted in [his] heart for many women," but it also symbolizes some of the idealization of women that comes with female representations of American freedom. (Fischer, 78). Another image, a pin-up for a 1940 calendar takes this idealization a step further, marketing America through the form of the female body.

Click here to see a 1940 image of lady liberty as a pin-up girl in a red, white and blue bathing suit.


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

Return to Lady Liberty: The Changing Face of American Freedom


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