Since the 19th century, the familiar figure of “Uncle Sam,” with his beard and stovepipe hat, has represented the U.S. in recruitment posters, political cartoons, and advertisements. But long before he first appeared, artists drew upon a visual tradition that stretched back centuries to depict America as a woman. Over time, the appearance and meaning of this allegorical female figure has varied widely. What does “America” look like? The answer depends on who is in power, and how they define beauty and belonging.
A Queen Among Queens
In the sixteenth century, European mariners, explorers, traders, and missionaries began to relay dramatic descriptions of an exotic New World, teeming with strange plants and animals, and populated by unfamiliar peoples. Drawing upon these tales, European artists created a composite figure to stand for the entire Western hemisphere: America (or Amérique), who took her place alongside Africa, Asia, and Europa as one of the allegorical queens who represented the four continents of the known world in maps and atlases.
Clad in bright feathers, fierce Amérique was usually depicted with weapons, such as a club, a spear, or a bow and arrows – an enduring reminder that many Europeans considered all Native American peoples “savage.” However, Amérique was also surrounded by New World exotica that fascinated European scientists, titillated European palates, and lured European colonists: armadillos, alligators, and parrots; cocoa, sugar, and tobacco; jewels, pearls, and precious metals.
A Rebellious Daughter
By the mid-eighteenth century, the printmakers and satirists of the British North Atlantic had appropriated the imagery and attributes of Amérique for their own purposes. No longer just a symbol of continental conquest and commerce, representations of British Colonial America took on a distinctly political tone. Though she kept her feathery attire, Amérique occasionally gained some new accessories (such as a rattlesnake, a Liberty cap on a pole, or a chain with thirteen links) that represented the spirit of independence which many people in the thirteen colonies saw as the key to their emerging national identity.
During the Revolutionary period, Amérique entered into a turbulent mother-daughter relationship with Britannia, the allegorical figure who represented the British Empire. Adopting a Native American warrior as a national symbol allowed rebellious colonists to distinguish themselves from the British and define themselves as a new nation of people forged by their sojourn in the North American wilderness. Yet this could be a double-edged symbol, as this British print from 1804 indicates:
When seen from the European point of view, America could certainly be admired as young, vigorous, and freedom-loving, but she could also be considered “uncivilized” and crude, lacking the Old World’s refinement and sophistication. Here, the figure representing America stretches out her hand towards Europe, who surrounds herself with a palette, a globe, maps, and other scientific implements – all the attributes of learning and the fine arts.
In the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, the European vogue for Neoclassicism influenced the ways in which Americans personified their new nation. Increasingly, Greco-Roman draperies covered Amérique and fashionable ostrich plumes replaced her feathered headdress. Her skin tone and hair became noticeably lighter as white Americans sought to distance themselves from the enslaved African Americans and “savage” Native American tribes with whom they shared the North American continent. As the eighteenth century drew to a close, the American warrior queen looked more and more like a European courtier.
In 1775, the enslaved African American poet Phillis Wheatley penned one of the earliest descriptions of Columbia as a personification of the American nation: “The Goddess comes, she moves divinely fair / Olive and laurel binds Her golden hair.” Eschewing any trace of Native American heritage, Columbia derived her name from Christopher Columbus and her appearance from Greco-Roman imagery. Dressed in pristine white or draped in the Stars and Stripes, Columbia displayed the virtues that white Americans sought to claim as their own: the cap of Liberty, the sword of Justice, the olive branch of Peace, and the laurel wreath of Victory.
However, even at the height of Columbia’s popularity in the nineteenth century, the use of a female figure to personify the United States did not translate into political power for women. Indeed, artists’ depictions of Columbia often reflected a very limited view of women’s agency, as in this cartoon by the famous satirist Thomas Nast:
Published during the contentious presidential election of 1872, Nast used this cartoon to skewer Horace Greeley (nominated by both the Democratic Party and a breakaway faction of Republicans) by depicting him as a menacing wolf poorly disguised in a coat. In doing so, Nast sought to redefine his political preference as the virile defense of the nation, much as the knife-wielding Uncle Sam defends the lovely shepherdess Columbia.
Even during wartime, the figure of Columbia could be used to invest political opinions with the weight of moral imperative, as in this highly partisan cartoon from the Civil War. Here, Columbia confronts an evasive President Lincoln and accuses him of squandering the lives of her “sons.”
This cartoon ran in the New York World, a pro-Democratic Party newspaper that fanned opposition to the Union cause in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation. (Many working-class New Yorkers feared that newly freed African Americans would become a source of competition for jobs.) On the heels of the Emancipation Proclamation came the National Conscription Act, which made all male citizens between the age of 25 and 35 eligible for a draft lottery unless they could afford to pay a $300 exemption fee or hire a substitute. Together, these two acts fundamentally changed the nature of the war and brought New York’s simmering class conflicts and race-based antagonism to a boil. In the summer of 1863, after the first lottery under the Conscription Act, the city exploded in the deadly and destructive Draft Riots. Appalled eyewitnesses reported mobs of men and women participating in atrocities that included lynchings, looting, and the burning of the Colored Orphan Asylum.
Press accounts hurried to assert that the women who took part in such violence and destruction were not American women at all, but Irish. In doing so, they contributed to popular prejudices that characterized Irish immigrants as “brutal, base, and cruel,” in the words of diarist George Templeton Strong. In contrast to the idealized features of Lady Columbia, caricaturists of the time often drew both African American women and Irish women with exaggeratedly small eyes, upturned noses, and wide mouths.
The fact that women were also among the mob’s victims was considered almost equally shocking at a time when women (like children) were regularly characterized as “helpless” and in need of protection. The rioters physically attacked African American women and destroyed the property of white women who were perceived as overly close to black men (including prominent abolitionists and so-called “amalgamationists,” or white women married to black men).
Hoping to prevent further violence in the following year, President Lincoln briefly shut down the World for publishing an inflammatory and fraudulent document alleging that he planned to call up hundreds of thousands of additional troops – a fabrication that the cartoon of Columbia references.
Lady Columbia Goes to War
Although she often bore arms or displayed a warrior’s persona, Columbia’s instincts were usually protective or defensive, rather than aggressive. For example, during World War I, illustrator Charles Dana Gibson created this poster showing Columbia fighting the spectre of death on behalf of a wounded soldier.
Although this poster was used to recruit drivers for the American Field Service, a volunteer ambulance corps, the AFS did not actually accept women drivers. Instead, many women joined the Red Cross Motor Corps. Unlike Columbia in her diaphanous white drapery, the women of the Motor Corps dressed in practical gray uniforms (which, controversially, included pants) to carry out their life-saving duties: bringing needed supplies to canteens, hospitals, and camps, transporting sick and wounded troops, and carrying civilian casualties of the 1918 influenza pandemic.
American women contributed to the war effort in many other ways as well. Even before the United States entered the war in 1917, many women donated time and money to aid European refugees. World War I greatly expanded women’s official capacities within the U.S. military, from the “Hello Girls” of the Army Signal Corps to the “Lady Hellcats” of the Marine Reserve. And, as in previous wars, thousands of women also served as nurses. Whether affiliated with the Army, the Navy, the Red Cross, or another volunteer organization, nurses found themselves responding to the horrific casualties of trench warfare.
The idealized nurse depicted alongside Lady Columbia in this fundraising poster by Edwin Howard Blashfield is dressed in flowing white robes, but many World War I nurses wore darker colors and ankle-length skirts, far more practical when dressing skin blistered by chemical weapons, irrigating septic wounds, and piecing together the “poor shattered legs of our blown-to-pieces men” as nurse Julia Stimson recalled. (After the war, Stimson became the first woman to achieve the rank of major in the U.S. Army.) Their work was harrowing, dangerous, and often carried out under difficult conditions.
Some suffrage activists, particularly the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) explicitly linked women’s contributions to the U.S. war effort to their campaign for the vote. The above cartoon indicates that this patriotic appeal helped win over public opinion to the cause of woman suffrage, and it was certainly instrumental in gaining the support of President Woodrow Wilson. By 1918, Wilson had begun lobbying reluctant Congressmen and speaking publicly in favor of the suffrage amendment:
The services of women during this supreme crisis of the world’s history have been of the most signal usefulness and distinction. The war could not have been fought without them, nor its sacrifices endured. It is high time that some part of our debt of gratitude to them should be acknowledged and paid, and the only acknowledgement they ask is their admission to the suffrage. Can we justly ignore it?
The 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920 – and soon after, Lady Columbia faded away. Along with Uncle Sam, a new female figure had come to take her place.
Liberty Enlightening the World
The allegorical Goddess of Liberty has an ancient pedigree, but she acquired a distinctive (and uniquely American) look at the end of the nineteenth century. Although not dedicated until October 28, 1886, the idea behind the Statue of Liberty had been germinating since the end of the American Civil War, when the French abolitionist and historian Édouard de Laboulaye (1811–1883) first proposed the monumental gift. Laboulaye meant for the statue to celebrate the passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in the United States. (He also hoped to inspire his own nation to turn against Emperor Napoleon III, back to a democratic form of government.) One of Laboulaye’s associates was the neoclassical sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi (1834–1904), whose design incorporated broken shackles and chains under Lady Liberty’s feet. These were powerful symbols that had long been associated with the abolitionist cause.
However, by the end of the nineteenth century, with Jim Crow laws in force across the U.S. and millions of immigrants arriving in New York Harbor, the statute’s primary association shifted.
This shift – from celebrating abolition to symbolizing hospitality and opportunity for immigrants – was reinforced by “The New Colossus,” written by popular poet and activist Emma Lazarus (1849–1887). In 1883, Lazarus, the descendant of Jewish immigrants, donated her poem to a charitable auction to raise money for the statue’s pedestal. Twenty years later, the sonnet was inscribed on a plaque inside the statue, and Lady Liberty acquired a new title, “Mother of Exiles,” which inspires controversy to this day.
Like Lady Columbia before her, Lady Liberty quickly came to stand for the nation as a whole, and is often used to evoke protective and patriotic feelings. An instantly recognizable yet protean figure, images of the Statue of Liberty can be found across the political spectrum (including as the icon for Women at the Center!).
– Jeanne Gutierrez, Center for Women’s History and Curator, Allegories of America.
Top Photo Credits: (from left) Unidentified sculptor. Amerique, ca. 1840. Terracotta Bequest of James Hazen Hyde, 1960.40; Currier & Ives America, ca. 1870 Lithograph. New-York Historical Society Library; Unidentified artist. Women’s Liberation, ca. 1970. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.