Behold Columbia's empire rise,
On Freedom's solid base to stand;
Supported by propitious skies,
And seal'd by her deliverer's hand.
“A Federal Song,” Albany (New York) Journal, August 4, 1788
I would give my daughters every accomplishment which I thought proper, and to crown all, I would early accustom them to habits of industry, and order; . . . they should be enabled to procure for themselves the necessaries of life, independence should be placed within their grasp, and I would teach them to “reverence themselves.”
[Judith Sargent Murray,] “The Gleaner No. XV,” Massachusetts Magazine 5 (August 1793): 4611
American women's ongoing struggle to capture and define their own varying realities has been shaped by western societies' changing attitudes and ideas about gender roles, race, religion, and politics. Reflecting these changing ideologies are the female allegorical representations and visual stereotypes that have in fact helped to limit women's roles in America. From the first illustrations made by Europeans of the American continent's native women to the patriotic model devised for white, middle class women in the late eighteenth century, visual and textual collections of the Library of Congress may be uniquely suited to throw light on the sometimes crude, sometimes subtle shadings of motive behind the early imaging of American women. A trio of engravings—two made in Europe and one in the brand new United States of America—showing the allegorical image of American women, respectively, as sinful Eve, as Indian queen and princess, and as neoclassical Liberty figure, reflects this evolution.
In 1590, Flemish engraver and publisher Theodor de Bry opened part one of America, his illustrated compilation of early travel accounts describing European encounters with the strange peoples in the mysterious “new found lands” across the Atlantic, with his engraving of Adam and Eve and the serpent.2 Thus the old stereotype of the formerly blessed couple cast out into the wilderness through the perfidy of original woman was transposed to an imagined America, the New Eden. De Bry, an ardent Protestant who never traveled to America, was influenced by European iconographical, cultural, and religious tradition, particularly in his depictions of women. The remainder of de Bry's plates in this volume, despite his tendency to Europeanize drawings made from life, illustrate the lifestyle of the native peoples living on Roanoke Island when the first British settlers arrived in what they called Virginia. Eyewitness and chronicler Thomas Hariot tells us at one point in the text that these peoples believed that “woman was made first,”3 and subsequent plates show women participating as apparent equals in the impressive economy and ceremony of tribal life.
Nearly 150 years later, Indian women—mother and daughter or, alternatively, queen and princess—had become established as symbols of America, the first for the Western Hemisphere (North and South America), the second for the British colonies in North America. Both dominate the cartouche (the ornamental frame to a map title) of Henry Popple's Map of the British Empire in America (1733). European artists—all male—had turned real and capable Indian women into prurient icons of a new civilization; the “queen” rests a foot on a human head, suggesting highly disturbing behavior.
The third engraving, a handsome rendering of the neoclassical Liberty figure, by American artist Edward Savage, made a few years after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, represents the young nation struggling to reemphasize the ideals on which it was founded. With the concept of freedom permeating American political and social philosophy and propaganda, who or what did the new country's leaders choose to represent the concepts of nationhood and civic virtue? Abandoned for now was the iconic Indian woman. Instead, a beautiful, young, white, classicized female was invented as an emblem of national values and republican motherhood.
De Bry's work can be seen in original editions found in the extraordinary Rosenwald Collection held in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress and in numerous later editions in the Library's General Collections.4 Woman as symbol or allegory of nationhood, patriotism, and civic and moral virtue—and of sexual temptation, immorality, and willful or unruly conduct—can also be seen in countless examples of images made before 1800—and in a deluge thereafter—in the Library's vast collections. These engravings, etchings, and woodcuts are ubiquitous, whether presented as fine prints, map cartouches, political cartoons, and newspaper mastheads or as illustrations in journals and magazines, on broadsides, paper currency, or stock and benevolent society membership certificates. With the advent of the new national government, designs for the decoration of the U.S. Capitol and other public buildings and monuments came forth, rife with neoclassical females.5 These visual images are buttressed by standards for women expounded, often allegorically, in sermons and advice literature, and, later, in articles and novels (see Etiquette Books and Prescriptive Literature in the General Collections section and Advice Books in the Rare Book and Special Collections section). Following the generalized female chronologically through North America's history shows how she has been recruited for every manifestation of propaganda and satire, particularly at times of political uncertainty and challenges to the status quo.6
It was de Bry's engravings, not the watercolors made from real life, that influenced European artists for at least two hundred years. Perhaps most influential as models for iconic images and stereotypes of Indian women were his engravings for Hans Staden's account of his year-long trials as a captive and threatened meal of Brazil's Tupinamba tribe. For this new edition, part 3 of America, de Bry made forty-five engravings based on woodcuts in Staden's original 1557 account, many of which sensationalized the central role of women in the cannibalism of their enemies, particularly the Portuguese, and the preparation of stomach-emptying alcoholic brews.7 Influenced by Staden's account, and that of Amerigo Vespucci—whose baptismal name, feminized, was placed on the first map of the Western Hemisphere—other artists had begun to represent the unfamiliar continent as a naked Indian maiden in an exotic landscape.8 They pictured her with severed heads and other gruesome detritus of the alleged cannibalism of the Tupinamba. America, wild and scantily clad, now joined the symbols for her sophisticated sister continents of Europe, Africa, and Asia.9 For those who were contemplating founding religious settlements in America, these images were evidence—along with many accounts of native females' sexual licentiousness—that Eve, the embodiment of original sin, was already running amok in the new lands.10
The imaging of America's natives had begun with the purely imaginary woodcuts illustrating a 1494 edition of Columbus's famous printed letter reporting his “discovery.”11 A few woodcuts illustrating sixteenth-century travel accounts and histories depicted Indians of Brazil and the Caribbean engaged in daily activities, but the reality of native lives in North America remained a matter of speculation until de Bry included his own engravings with travel accounts that he published in the order in which he acquired them. He based his engravings of the Timucua Indians—first published in 1591 as part 2 of America—on artist Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues's watercolors made in 1564 in northeast Florida.12 Le Moyne, the first professional artist to work in the territory that would become the United States, had accompanied French Huguenot leader René de Laudonnière on an expedition to found a settlement. All but one of his watercolors have been lost but, judging by the remaining example, de Bry made remarkably few changes in designs that depicted native life through a European lens. Timucua women, however, are shown actively involved with men in work and ceremony—planting the fields, loading and transporting baskets with corn and fruits, and worshiping a column left by a previous French expedition.13
John White's apparently more ethnographically accurate watercolors of southeastern Algonquian peoples, made twenty years later than the Florida designs, were actually the first to be engraved and published by de Bry.14 Women are shown participating in ceremonial occasions, posing proudly and individually for their portraits as wives and leading citizens of the Algonquian towns of Secotan or Pomeiock, and involved in daily activities, such as a self-confident young woman “sitting at meate” with her husband [view picture].
Looking for the women in these images reminds us that, although we may learn much from them about the reality of Indian women's lives during the encounter period, the images reflect the artist's—and particularly the engraver's—own prejudices, preconceptions, and misconceptions. The creator's point of view is central to the interpretation of any historical document, including visual images. Comparison of the Virginia engravings with the original watercolors, most of which have survived, shows that de Bry altered the faces, particularly the women's, making them conform to European ideas of beauty and attractiveness; sometimes removed the tattoos shown in the White watercolors; adjusted poses and physiques—Botticelli's “Three Graces” appear in one of de Bry's versions of ceremonial scenes (plate 18, White: LC-USZ62-572 [view picture]; de Bry: LC-USZ62-40055 [view picture]); added pastoral landscapes, plants, and animals; and “corrected” the Indian artifacts.15
During the period of European colonial settlement of America, the colonists' image of their new country derived from their home countries. Travel and missionary accounts continued to depict Indian customs, lifestyles, and, increasingly, territorial conflicts with white settlers.16 It was not until well toward the end of the eighteenth century, however, several generations after the arrival of the first European settlers in New England and along the mid-Atlantic coast, that American artists and engravers, conscious of their newly separate nationality, began to build a substantial visual record of American life and cultural and political attitudes. Although printing presses had been established in the British colonies by the mid-seventeenth century—and even earlier in the Spanish colonies, the economy and the ideological climate were not yet ripe for the making or printing of images in colonial America. The earliest printed portraits made in America in the early eighteenth century were of men, including a mezzotint of the Congregational minister Cotton Mather, an authoritarian with strong views on women's roles.17
Despite the fact that women had shared with men the religious persecutions and economic depressions that had driven them to settle British North America, European immigrants—with the notable exception of Quakers—believed explicitly in women's inferiority, intellectually, spiritually, and legally. Students of American women's history, including nineteenth-century suffrage leaders, have remarked on the difference in attitudes toward European women, who, through the feme covert tradition of English common law governing married women, could neither own property in their own right nor make decisions about their children independently of their husbands (see Property Law in the Law Library section), and the apparent sharing of power and division of labor between women and men in many Indian tribes.18 In the matrilineal Iroquois Five Nations, for example, the household and land up to the forest's edge were the women's domain, giving them economic heft and authority in their tribe, and older women had the right to nominate the council of elders and depose chiefs.19 Men's work—war, trading, hunting, and international relations—was generally carried out in the forest.
Another factor in the retardation of American-made imagery was that the Protestant sects that came to America tended to shun graven images. As people of the Word, they relied on the sermons of ministers or church elders for definitions and allegories of ideal or dangerous womanhood. Dissidents such as Anne Hutchinson, Mary Dyer, and other “disorderly women,” like Eve, were often demonized, and put to trial, executed, or banished.20 Women who fulfilled traditional roles as good wives were idealized by the Puritan community.21 Although women's essential contributions as managers of the domestic economy were more valued in the struggling colonies than they might have been in England, men were imbued with a fear of assertive women that had its roots in Judeo-Christian doctrine.22 By contrast, religious icons were central to the Spanish conversión of Indians to Christianity—specifically Catholicism—in the Southwest between the seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries. Symbols of the Madonna, the metaphysical image of the Mother Church—especially the ubiquitous Virgin of Guadalupe—and female saints were there revered and held up as exemplars of ideal womanhood. Catholic women generally remained in their submissive place, however, and outspoken, immoral, or otherwise unconventional women risked being singled out for punishment by the Spanish Inquisition.23
During the seventeenth century, New England colonists intermittently suffered devastating losses from territorial wars with Northeastern Indian tribes and frontier attacks, while the Indians themselves were decimated by war and disease. Ironically, it was often white women—or men writing in their name—who published accounts of their captivity and the murder of their children by vicious savages who mocked white settlers.24 These descriptions became an influential force in the creation of the American antithesis of the noble savage image promulgated by Europeans. In the meantime, European mapmakers were depicting America in cartouches as an increasingly noble Indian queen, with the trappings of natural wealth and Caribbean culture.25
As noted earlier, the symbol was initially based on the native women of South and Central America because those areas of the Western Hemisphere were the first to be described. As England began to reap the benefits from trade with its increasingly prosperous colonies in North America in the early eighteenth century, mapmakers began to differentiate and use a separate symbol for those colonies, an Indian princess pictured before a seaport. This evolution from the queen-as-continent to the colonial princess can be traced in many different map cartouches found on the Geography and Map Division's rare maps (see Graphic Images on Maps in Geography and Map "American Women" guide).
The casting of women as universal abstractions for civic virtue and geographical spaces in Europe originated with the classical republics of Greece and Rome, whose political and intellectual elite assigned lofty ideals to womankind while excluding real women from the public and political realm. Marina Warner asks how it is possible to equate Aristotle's claim that woman is a defective male, considered by Greek law to be incapable of running her own finances or bearing witness in a court of law, with the fact that ideals of civic virtue were expressed in the feminine. The answer to this paradox, she says, was to render the female form as generic and universal, removed from all connection to individuality, whereas the male form retained individuality even when it was used to express a generalized idea.26
As intellectuals and artists inspired the renaissance of classical ideals in Europe in the fifteenth through sixteenth centuries, a long tradition of symbolic imagery became standardized, along with more recent innovations, in a series of emblem books and dictionaries. Among these, the most influential were Cesare Ripa's Iconologia (from 1603) and George Richardson's Iconology or a Collection of Emblematical Figures (1779, found in the Rosenwald Collection), based on Ripa's compositions and published in time to ride the tide of neoclassicism.27
European mapmakers made ample use of the emblem books, but the books were also at hand for political and intellectual leaders, artists, journalists, printers, or anyone else in search of effective ways to express revolutionary ideas to a largely illiterate populace as America began to loosen “her” bonds with England and England battled to hold onto “her” rich offspring. Following the Stamp Act of 1765, Boston craftsman Paul Revere taught himself the art of engraving and began to produce a number of propagandistic cartoons in support of the American colonies' protest against taxation without representation. Several of these can be seen in the print collections in the Prints and Photographs Division. Revere is credited with introducing the Britannia figure with liberty cap and pole as a symbol of the American rebellion, which the Sons of Liberty—still British subjects—were quick to adopt.28 The Liberty/Britannia figure soon became part of the iconography of the American Revolution.29
Switching to fashionable and lofty neoclassical imagery allowed American leaders to avoid associating the newly independent American colonies with now threatening indigenous tribes.30 Some of the most powerful Indian tribes on the northwest frontier had seized the opportunity to ally with the British and ravage frontier settlements. Europe's “noble savage” again became the colonists' enemy. Even so, the positive equation of Indians with freedom may have prompted the Sons of Liberty to dress up as Mohawk Indians for the Boston Tea Party in 1773.
Would the Sons of Liberty have seen the irony, however, if they had been told that the liberty cap and pole had their origins in an ancient Roman ceremony for the manumission of a slave? 31 Freedom was unknown to the African slaves who had been brought to North America to labor for white owners, particularly in the tobacco-growing southern colonies. A jarring juxtaposition in the Pennsylvania Evening Post of July 2, 1776, of an advertisement for a runaway slave alongside a brief announcement of the Continental Congress's resolution to declare independence, reminds us that slaves—along with free Euro-American women and Native Americans—were ignored in the Declaration of Independence. Many of the runaway advertisements and broadsides that blazoned “Negroes for Sale,” while often providing individual characteristics in the text, were illustrated with crude, cookie-cutter icons representing the actual men, women, and children whose bondage made a mockery of the language of and fight for freedom from the 1760s to the 1780s (by contrast, see the Phillis Wheatley illustration).32
While Revere was leading the way in establishing an American school of political cartooning, America's friends in England, particularly the merchant class, supported a storm of political propaganda in the form of allegorical prints as the conflict reached hurricane force. These can be seen in pamphlets and magazines in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division and in the British Cartoons collection in the Prints and Photographs Division. The Indian princess remained the preferred English symbol for America, even among her English friends, but she was increasingly shown with the attributes of liberty, alienated from her mother Britannia. In Britain, America, at Length Be Friends, from the January 1774 issue of the London Magazine, the Indian princess wears a feather bonnet and bears a cornucopia representing natural bounty, but her robes are becoming classicized and the goddess Concord is shown trying to reconcile Britannia and her daughter on the wharf of a busy port [picture].33
Three months later, however, the same magazine offered the shocking image The able doctor, or America swallowing the Bitter Draught, which was also issued as a separate print. It was quickly copied and signed by Paul Revere for publication in the June issue of Boston's Royal American Magazine.34 On this occasion, he was apparently more taken by the depiction of America's hapless plight than he was wedded to his own preference for the Liberty figure as symbol of America.
But although Liberty was the seceding colonists' new sign for America, the “daughters of Liberty” themselves had no independent political rights, despite the many calls that were made on their own patriotism before and during the Revolutionary War in the form of boycotting English household goods, managing and defending farms and estates in their husbands' absence, and materially supporting the American soldiers.35
Ideological justification for the effort led by Esther De Berdt Reed, wife of the president of Pennsylvania's supreme executive council, and Benjamin Franklin's daughter Sarah Franklin Bache, to solicit funds for Washington's troops can be seen in the broadside The Sentiments of an American Woman, Philadelphia, June 10, 1780 (RBSC; see essay on this broadside). Declaring that American women were “born for liberty” and that “if the weakness of our Constitution, if opinion and manners did not forbid us to march to glory by the same paths as the Men,” they would at least be found equal in their convictions and loyalty to the “Thirteen United Colonies,” Reed presented a list of historical role models for politically active women, such as Deborah, Judith, and Esther; the great European queens; and the “Maid of Orleans.”36
While women's broadsides continued to use such biblical and classical allusions to legitimize real American women's courage under trial, the framers of America's Constitution once again chose to ignore women as an independent political class. Instead, classicized “universal woman” was proffered in a number of different guises—Liberty, Columbia, America, Minerva—in the search for a new, national identity on medals, coins, or public decoration following the establishment of the federal government in 1789, and American women were assigned a new role as the moral upholders of the Union. They should confine themselves, they were told, to the domestic sphere and dedicate themselves to “republican motherhood,”as the nurturers, educators, and moral compasses of a nation of public-spirited citizens.37 The frontispiece for the 1789 Columbian Magazine depicts “the Genius of Foederate America” as a young woman surrounded by the symbols of prosperity and education while Apollo points her way to the Temple of Fame.38
Personal ambition and political activism were still frowned on for American women, but the tide was in fact about to turn in favor of their education for a higher purpose, that of national unity, and their long march to establish and claim their own image had begun.
The Liberty who nurtures the presumably male bald eagle, or soaring young nationhood, in the Savage print seems to have descended from her classical pedestal and to be moving into real life to challenge the barriers of stereotype, satire, social custom, and law.
Sara Day authored the original essay in American Women: A Library of Congress Guide for the Study of Women's History and Culture in the United States (Library of Congress, 2001), from which this online version is derived.