Gage Protest at the Statue of Liberty
The statue stands 151 feet high (on top of a 154-foot-high pedestal) and depicts Lady Liberty raising a torch in her right hand and holding in her left hand a tablet inscribed with the date of the publication of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776.
MANY protests and protest marches have been happening. And there is A LOT to protest. I have been participating in several and will participate in one this coming Friday night. It is being dubbed “Lights for Liberty.” My understanding is that there will be similar protests all over America that night—despite the fact that it is a difficulty for people of the Jewish Faith. Candles will be lit and speeches will be given.
Growing up in the Midwest in a small town near St. Louis, I never experienced any protest marches or demonstrations. We watched on TV Vietnam protests and women’s rights demonstrations. The closest I came at that time was a small contingent of SDS members on the quad of my teacher’s college, Illinois State, doing a silent protest. The closest public demonstration that I participated in was going to the state capitol in Springfield with a small group of women who had formed a group we called “Housewives for the ERA.” When I lived in Pennsylvania, near Scranton, there were no demonstrations in which I participated or even remember. The closest I came then to activism was written protests against the building of a trash incinerator.
Things changed when I moved to Syracuse. Maybe its that New York vibe. Certainly, when I lived in the Midwest, most of “the action” seemed to be happening on the west coast or on the east coast.
Since moving here, I have made quite a few bus trips to Albany for various causes. Many of them concerned environmental issues: another incinerator problem, hydrofracking, climate change (especially the huge march inspired by Bill McKibben in New York City and another on a blisteringly-hot and muggy day in Philadelphia.) More recent ones have been marches against gun violence. If you have read my most recent posts, you know I have participated in the first Indigenous Peoples March in Washington, D.C. followed the next day by the 2019 Women’s March. Currently, I have been working and volunteering on issues considering immigration. I and many others will be at a “Close the Camps” silent protest downtown tomorrow from 12:00-12:30.
But enough about my protest marches. It is one particular protest of Matilda Joslyn Gage’s that I want to share today. In 1886, the Statue of Liberty, a gift from France to honor the shared commitment to the idea of liberty by the United States and France, was dedicated.
The New York Times described the excitement surrounding this event: “All day yesterday people came to the city in droves to participate in today’s celebration. Extra heavily loaded trains, much behind schedule time, were the rule on every railroad entering the city. Every hotel was crowded to its utmost capacity last night, and there was hardly one of the better-known hotels which did not have to turn away hundreds of would-be guests.” Grover Cleveland dedicated the Statue of Liberty to a city that was crowded with spectators. The ceremony included speeches by the president and famed French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps, among others, as well as music and gun salvo. The finale featured the statue’s designer, Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi. He was perched in the statue’s torch. At the official time, he pulled a rope removing a large French flag from the front of the statue, revealing Lady Liberty’s face to the crowd.
On first thought, you would probably think that Matilda would be all for this. But her take was quite different. She and other progressive women, members f the New York City Woman Suffrage Association, attended the unveiling ceremony in the New York harbor in order to protest the ironic symbolism of “Lady Liberty.” She argued that a woman could not represent liberty in a country where women were not even guaranteed the right to vote. They deemed It the greatest hypocrisy of the 19th century. Liberty represented as a woman in a land where not a single woman had the liberty to vote!
The New York State Woman Suffrage Association had to jump through some hoops in order to get to the event. They couldn’t get tickets to attend the unveiling on Bedloe’s Island (now known as Liberty Island) because they were unaccompanied women, according to the National Park Service. However, they found a way. There was a parade of ships sailing by the island to celebrate the unveiling that day, so the suffragists chartered a boat and crashed the procession. The suffragists on that steamer held up banners protesting the unveiling, attended by 2,000 to 2,500 men on the island. The men were also joined by at least two women, both of whom were there with their husband or father.
Gage remarked on the occasion: “It is the sarcasm of the 19th century to represent liberty as a woman, while not one single woman throughout the length and breadth of the land is as yet in possession of political liberty.” To her and the other protesting suffragists, this was a travesty. Indeed, so was the celebration surrounding it—which included many boats surrounding Ellis Island and fireworks and other speeches. These women were imaginative and did display civil disobedience. But their actions contained no violence.
This engraving, based on a drawing by Charles Graham, shows New York Harbor and the Statue of Library illuminated by fireworks to celebrate the statue’s unveiling on Oct. 28, 1886.
Gage’s protest at the unveiling of Lady Liberty was not the last held there. As Betty Little says in a recent article, “The Statue of Liberty has long been a magnet for protest. For more than 130 years, the statue, with its famed inscription “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses,” has served as a powerful symbol for Americans who want to protest injustice. A recent protest happened a year ago on July 4th. Immigrant activist Therese Patricia Okoumou, 44, climbed up to the Statue of Liberty’s feet to protest the treatment of immigrants and asylum-seekers at the U.S.-Mexican border. In particular, her protest spotlighted the thousands of children whom the U.S. separated from their families and has yet to reunite. As a result, Liberty Island was evacuated shortly after the seven protesters unfurled an ‘Abolish ICE’ banner from the statue’s pedestal and Okoumou climbed the statue’s base. Okoumou, of Staten Island, was born and educated in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but she has lived in New York for at least the last 10 years. She joined the group Rise and Resist, which unfurled an “Abolish ICE” banner at the base of the statue, and had been taking part in about one protest a week with the group.
In 1970, Feminist Betty Friedan called for a national women’s strike on August 26 to mark the 50th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted U.S. women the right to vote. Friedan, the outgoing president of the National Organization for Women at the time, urged women to forego paid and unpaid work in order to draw attention to gendered disparities in employment, education and household responsibilities. A similar protest is arising right now with the stir that the U.S. Women’s Soccer Champs inequality in pay (18% on the dollar compared to what the men’s soccer team gets paid—who didn’t even qualify for the championships.) Friedan (from whom I had the pleasure of hearing a speech in person) said at the time: “I propose that the women who are doing menial chores in the offices as secretaries put the covers on their typewriters and close their notebooks and the telephone operators unplug their switchboards, the waitresses stop waiting, cleaning women stop cleaning and everyone who is doing a job for which a man would be paid more stop.”
Two weeks before the march, about 100 protesters hung a banner on Statue of Liberty’s pedestal that said “Women of the World Unite.” This “liberation” of Lady Liberty helped build momentum for the August 26 strike, during which 50,000 women marched through the streets of New York City.
The year after the women’s strike, 15 or 16 members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War occupied Liberty Island for three days to protest the Vietnam War. On the door to the statue, they posted a letter to President Richard Nixon. They said, “Now, as we sit inside the Statue of Liberty, having captured the hopes and imaginations of a war‐weary nation, we have run out of all excuses … Mr. Nixon: You set the date. We’ll evacuate.”
Inside the Statue of Liberty, a spokesman reads the demands of members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), who barricaded themselves inside the structure overnight as a symbolic protest.
The flag of Puerto Rico flying from the head of the Statue of Liberty after 28 Puerto Rican nationals seized the Liberty Island and the statue. In October 1977, Puerto Rican nationalists draped a Puerto Rican flag across Lady Liberty’s crown. For decades, residents of the U.S. territory had lived as second-class American citizens who couldn’t vote—so activists draped a banner across the statue’s pedestal, calling for Puerto Rico’s independence.
In 1979, 40 unarmed Muslim students loyal to Ayatollah Khomeini laid siege to the statue for several hours and chained themselves inside the monument’s crown to demand death for the deposed Shah of Iran. They unfurled a banner from the crown that declared “The Shah Must be Tried and Punished.”
In 1980 Croatian nationalists detonated a time-delayed bomb in the museum that once occupied the statue’s base. According to law-enforcement officials, the perpetrators were terrorists who, for the prior five years, had conducted a wave of bombings, assassination attempts and other terrorist acts around the U.S. Their goal was Croatian independence from Yugoslavia.
The famous poem by Emma Lazarus wasn’t added to the base of the statue until years later in 1903. Her sonnet, “The New Colossus,” it includes the famous lines:
“‘Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!’ cries she
With silent lips. ‘Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!