Race, Gender and the Deception of "Freedom"

Peeling back the layers of lady liberty's meanings--those of her ancestry, those intended by her creators, and those coinicidentally aligned with her via her voyages--we cannot forget another layer of her significance: the way she has painfully and ironically represented the unfreedoms, the persistent tyranny and injustices, of the United States itself. The struggles of African-Americans and women to obtain equal rights and equal treatment, to be as free as white American men, may not emanate directly from the Bartholdi's Statue of Liberty or Crawford's Lady Freedom, but, today, representations of lady liberty cannot be fully explored without doing a double take and re-evaluating how her symbolism squares with honest reality.

African Americans and Lady Liberty

The aforementioned politics behind the depiction of Lady Freedom's headdress explains some of irony behind early American symbols of "Freedom" (see Politics: The Agendas Behind the Monuments): While carefully attending to the relief of American colonists upon winning liberty from Britain, and while simultaneously achieving a symbol of America's freedom to pursue its Manifest Destiny, the creation of Crawford's Lady Freedom blindly ignored the inhumane enslavement of thousands of someday-to-be American citizens. "Freedom," it seems, only applied to the already free. Even more ironic is the fact that Lady Freedom's physical assemblage could not have happened without a slave named Philip Reed, a Maryland man who cast the entire statue as soon as its pieces arrived in one place (see Journeys: Tracing the Paths of Our Lady Liberties.) The hypocrisy doubles over on itself: America's freedom was borne upon the backs of those deprived of freedom by Americans themselves.

Blood-chilling events in Springfield, Missouri on the evening of April 14, 1906 also emphasize the ironies. That night three black men were lynched, hung from a light tower, and burned. At the top of the tower, lifelessly observing the scene, stood a replica of the Statue of Liberty. The thousands of cheering bigots in the crowd below may not have ever absorbed the irony, but a cartoonist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch captured the moment with this drawing.

The shadow made by Liberty's arm forms the outline of a gallows on the ground. The caption read, "O Liberty, What Crimes are Committed in thy Name!". (Reprinted from Lederer, "And Then They Sang a Sabbath Song," Springfield! (May 1981); 26.)

The lynching was instigated by reports that a white woman from out of town had been raped by two black men. Two young black men were picked up as suspects and held in the county jail. Later that evening, as police and city officials stood by, a mad mob raided the jail. Dozens of already convicted criminals were let free as the leaders of the mob took the two black men, not yet given an indictment or trial, out of the jail and out to the light tower. By this time, one of the two men may already have died from blows to the head. Both were strung up, hung and then burned. Later that night the mob went back to the jail and found one more African American--a man who was unable to escape from his cell because of a jammed lock. He too was strung up and burned. At dawn the next day, Easter Morning, townspeople visited the embers, some taking photographs that they would later sell as souveniers.

The two black men were later found to be innocent of the supposed crime, and the tale of the rape was determined to be a hoax. A few members of the mob were brought to trial; all were acquitted. Blacks fled Springfield by the hundreds; any evidence of the improved race relations that had existed before the lynching was completely destroyed.

The Statue of Liberty, meanwhile, was removed from the light tower and kept in a resident's backyard until it decayed. Even symbols of freedom, it seems, could not mask American injustice any longer.

For a well-documented account of the lynching and its effect on Springfield, see Katherine Lederer, "And Then They Sang a Sabbath Song," a three-part series published in the magazine, Springfield! in April 1981, pp. 26-29, 33-36 and June 1981, pp. 24- 26.

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.