by Robert Hieronimus, Ph.D. and Laura E. Cortner
Co-authors of The Secret Life of Lady Liberty: Goddess in the New World
The history of the Statue of Liberty is bookended by the stories of the first two women to run for president. As the towering image of a giant woman standing for liberty rose up in a nation where women had no liberty, the hypocrisy inspired a noticeable uptick in the creativity demonstrated by women’s rights activists.
Victoria Woodhull was the first woman to declare herself a candidate for president, though in 1872 she never actually launched her campaign. Her advocacy for another cause got her locked up for obscenity before the election when she and her equally colorful sister Tennessee Claflin published an exposé on the adulterous affair of one of their leading critics. The sisters were vocal advocates for reform in divorce and adultery laws, reproductive rights, spousal rape, and homosexuality laws, and as such could not resist exposing the hypocrisy of the Rev. Henry Beecher (Harriet Beecher Stowe’s brother), who had frequently condemned them for challenging the age-old patriarchal model of marriage.
At his adultery trial, Beecher’s defense attorney was William M. Evarts who a decade later would head the fundraising campaign for the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. Back at that 1872 trial, however, Evarts proclaimed that, “Women were not free, but were held in the hollow of man’s hand, to be crushed at his will.” Fourteen years later, in a stroke of cosmic irony, he stood before the giant woman-Liberty trying to give a speech at the unveiling ceremony for the Statue of Liberty in 1886, and his opinions were cut short by a metaphorical crushing in her own hand.
As the chief fundraiser for the pedestal, Evarts was given the honor of the concluding speech accepting the gift of Lady Liberty from the French. He was to signal the sculptor, Auguste Bartholdi, up above in the crown, when to drop the French flag that was veiling her face. After an untimely pause in his delivery, Bartholdi cut the cords too soon, and the resulting cacophony of deafening horns, whistles, and cheers lasted for half an hour. Evarts eventually sat down, his opinions crushed by the outpouring of the people’s enthusiasm for their giant woman Liberty.
In 1884, as the cornerstone was laid for of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, Belva Lockwood was campaigning across the country in the first serious bid by a woman for the presidency. Lockwood was an attorney and a visionary activist who changed the legal status of women unlike any other in history, and you’ve probably never heard of her. She was the first woman to argue a case before the Supreme Court, and she was at the forefront of the battle against coverture, an innocent-sounding word for the harsh legal custom that since Colonial days had deprived women of all their rights to personhood as soon as they got married. Married women were legally “covered” by their husbands – they became one person under the law. Throughout her career as a member of the bar, Lockwood encountered several judges who refused to hear her argue her cases in their court on the grounds that she was a married woman and therefore barred from speaking in court.
Victoria Woodhull and Belva Lockwood challenged the legal restrictions of their time, and they courageously stood up to the animosity and vicious abuse hurled at them for doing so. Hillary Clinton as Chief Executive is bound to surround herself with intelligent, brave women like these two who will bring their unique creative approach to problem solving. Together they will teach the nation by example that gender-balanced committees succeed more often than those out of balance. As the archetypal symbol of America, our giant woman Liberty continues to inspire women today to stride forward as leaders, carrying the torch of enlightening change.
About the Authors
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.