What the Statue of Liberty Can Teach us about Feminism

Flexibility is Strength. During this election year, focusing on the symbolism of the Statue of Liberty can help us navigate the debate over the need to vote more women into positions of power. The Statue of Liberty has been cloaked in layers of propaganda and mythic assumptions over the decades, and unpinning them is the first step in understanding her symbolic message. Underneath, pure and simple, Lady Liberty is a woman confident in her own power. The brilliance of her wisdom shines forth visibly from her crown. Remembering that the Statue of Liberty is strong because she is flexible can teach us to change our perceptions of what we value as strength.

The Statue of Liberty was originally constructed in downtown Paris, and made an imposing sight towering above the rooftops. This engraving listing the foundry of Gaget, Gauthier et Companie where she was constructed also shows cross sections of the statue revealing the iron trusswork tower inside. Manhhai, FlickrCreative Commons.

Physical engineers will tell you the Statue of Liberty’s strength is due to her literal flexibility, allowing her to withstand hurricane winds by swaying gently in the gales. But symbolically as well, Lady Liberty has shown an amazingly flexibility in interpretation by appealing to widely different classes of people, even those with opposing viewpoints, over the past 130 years. Her ability to change and adapt to represent a changing “America” has only strengthened her identity as our nation’s conscience.

Lillie Devereux Blake, Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography, 1900, v. 1
Lillie Devereux Blake, Appletons’ Cyclopædia of American Biography, 1900.

Strong women have been changing and shaping this nation from the beginning, but most of us never learn their names because history books give only about 8% of their space to women’s achievements. When we studied the history of the Statue of Liberty we were introduced to many of these brave women from American history – such as those who organized the several protest actions for women’s rights at the foot of the goddess.

A “delightful inconsistency” is the very ladylike way that suffragist Lillie Devereux Blake described the Statue of Liberty when she first learned of the concept of a woman representing liberty in a land where women had no liberty. Blake was a creative activist with flair, and as the head of both the New York state and city suffragist associations when the Statue of Liberty came to town in 1886, she decided a staged protest at the unveiling ceremony was an opportunity they could not ignore. Some organizational confusion placed the women’s boat right at the lady’s feet between two military ships where Blake made her protest. Their official proclamation declared: “In erecting a Statue of Liberty embodied as a woman in a land where no woman has political liberty, men have shown a delightful inconsistency which excites the wonder and admiration of the opposite sex.”

Speaking to close to 200 supporters on their boat, Lillie Devereux Blake named her “our woman Liberty” and recalled feeling immensely moved to see, in the eyes of her fellow suffragists on the boat, a shining hope as the veil fell from the statue. The cacophony of ships horns and crowd hurrahs that followed lasted for almost half an hour. “And over all this scene of animation,” wrote Blake later, “above the land, above the sea, towering far above the pigmy men at her feet, rose the majestic woman form, Liberty. . . . All this done by men in honor of a woman.”

Photo: Sage Ross, Creative Commons.
Photo: Sage Ross, Creative Commons.

The Statue of Liberty as a mascot has been adopted by both pro-labor and pro-business groups, by anarchists and legal scholars, by immigrants and nativists, by women and men—in fact, anyone and everyone who desires the liberty to pursue one’s own beliefs. “The Statue of Liberty belongs to everyone,” said Carole De Saram, one of the organizers of the famous 1970 women’s lib protest at the statue. “She’s not a symbol of just one ethnic or economic class. She’s everybody.”

While it’s tempting to conclude with a soundbite that the Statue of Liberty’s advice is to “Vote for Women!,” in reality the message from Lady Liberty is to vote for the candidate that is most able to tap into those strengths that society currently defines as “feminine,” those of flexibility, compromise, compassion, and nurturing. All these strengths are wrapped up in the symbolism of our American Liberty Goddess. While gender parity is the long-term goal, especially in politics, but also in the military, the police force, education and business, today we must vote for candidates who invite women to join them as leaders around their negotiation tables. As Hillary Clinton is fond of saying “women’s issues are human issues,” and when society grows flexible enough to address these so-called women’s issues, the whole world will start to grow up.

About the Authors

Authors Robert Hieronimus, Ph.D., and Laura E. Cortner inside the head
of the Statue of Liberty after the long climb to the top.

Robert Hieronimus, Ph.D. is an internationally known historian, visual artist, and radio host and has appeared on History, Discovery, BBC, and National Geographic. The host of 21st Century Radio®, he lives in Maryland. Laura E. Cortner has co-authored previous titles with Robert Hieronimus including Founding Fathers, Secret Societies and United Symbolism of America. Her work appears regularly in periodicals like UFO Magazine, FATE Magazine, and several Beatles publications. She is the director of the Ruscombe Mansion Community Health Center and lives in Maryland.