When America Was Female

Uncle Sam's older, classier sister Columbia fell out of favor after women got the vote. Maybe it's time to bring her back.

The photos of the historic suffragette March on Washington on March 3, 1913, that were all over the place over the weekend were a reminder of how far America has come in the last century, and of how much American women have been at the forefront of pushing the international rights of women forward. But as I admired their bonnets and their courage, their side-buttoned boots and hooded woolen cloaks and looks of fierce determination, the women in the 100-year-old images also raised for me some slightly more prosaic questions.

Why were some staging tableaux wearing breastplates and laurels? Who were they dressed as? And -- perhaps more importantly -- why can't contemporary feminists have costumes that are as regal and classical as those of 1913 -- instead of Code Pink's vulgar giant magenta lady bits?


The answer, it turns out, is that Uncle Sam had a much older and classier sister named Columbia, the feminine historic personification of the United States of America, who has since the 1920s largely fallen out of view. But she was as recognizable to Americans of yesteryear as the man in the top-hat and tails remains today, and when the suffragettes donned robes and armor, they garbed themselves in her rebel warrior's spirit. From the 18th century until the early decades of the 20th, Columbia was the gem of the ocean, a mythical and majestic personage whose corsets or breast-plates curved out of her striped or starred or swirling skirts with all the majesty of a shield. She was honored from the birth of the nation -- "Hail, Columbia!", whose score was first composed for the inauguration of President Washington, was an unofficial anthem until the "Star-Spangled Banner" displaced it as the official national one in 1931 -- to the birth of the recording and film industries, which is why we have had Columbia Records and Columbia Pictures. Yes, that lady with the torch at the start of the movies isn't just some period-costume-wearing chick -- she is a relic of this earlier personification of America, immortalized forever by the most American of industries.

America was Columbia in the same way that England was Britannia and France was Marianne. America's capital is the District of Columbia; New York City's great early private university was Columbia College (now University).

But as skirt lengths rose and corsets were tossed to the wind, Columbia fell out of favor. Perhaps it had something to do with the rise of Lady Liberty as an icon, though in the 19th century the two were sometimes visually interchangeable, if not identical. Perhaps it had something to do with Columbia's role beseeching citizens to endure hardship during the Great War. Or perhaps it was something bigger: Female national personifications in general fell out of vogue as women took on a growing role as emancipated citizens. But for one glorious moment in the early 20th century, the allegorical and the concrete met on the steps of the Treasury building in Washington.

Thanks to these and other women who marched, women's rights in America were secured (even if they remain always and ever contested). A century later, Columbia looks like a lady who knows how to lean in. Enough time has passed, it seems, that we might consider reviving her spirit, and returning her to the pantheon of America characters for the years to come.

* * *

In the 19th century, Columbia appeared often in cartoons. Here, she gives a Lady Liberty-like welcome to persecuted Germans in 1881:


She's also been pictured standing up for the rights of Chinese immigrants:


And often been a martial figure, as with this call to remember the Spirit of '61 (1861, that is):


She played a major role in World War I propaganda posters: