(WOMENSENEWS)–On October 28, 1886, the Statue of Liberty is unveiled. The city’s first ticker-tape parade heralds the ceremony in New York harbor. What will become the female equivalent of Uncle Sam is about to be unveiled, more than 20 years after its commissioning.
The Statue of Liberty is a controversial gift from French politicians with self-serving motives. Sculptor Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi’s design, rumored to have originally been a black woman throwing off the chains of slavery, has been attacked by clergy for its paganism.
The “goddess,” according to the sculptor, resembles his mother, who raised him alone; her arms are modeled on his wife’s. The people of America have had to raise a hefty sum for the pedestal on which she will stand.
In 1883, American poet Emma Lazarus, whose Sephardic Jewish family traces its roots to before the American Revolution, writes a poem, “The New Colossus,” to be auctioned at a fund raiser for the pedestal.
In 1886, while President Grover Cleveland and other male dignitaries pontificate, a boat circles the festivities. It is loaded with suffragists shouting, through a megaphone, that were the copper lady to descend from her pedestal, she would be barred from participating in the civic life of both France and America. (The following year, the U.S. Senate will defeat a measure for women’s suffrage.) Theirs is the first in a line of protests–from advocates of Puerto Rican independence to Second Wave Feminists–in which the female symbol of enlightenment and democracy is used to point out the clash between promise and truth, myth and reality.
Emma Lazarus would have understood. Her sonnet to the “mother of exiles” contrasts Lady Liberty with the Greek statue of a conquering male warrior.
But “give to me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” would never have been associated with the statue were it not for Lazarus’ good friend Georgina Schuyler, a descendant of Alexander Hamilton, who had the words placed inside the base after the turn of the century. By then, Lazarus was dead and immigration was becoming an American “problem.”
Louise Bernikow is the author of nine books, including “The American Women’s Almanac.” She takes her women’s history slide show to communities and campuses all over the country.
For more information:
Miriam’s Cup Biography of Emma Lazarus:
Black History Magazine Statue of Liberty: