“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!”
The Statue of Liberty is one very big American icon, adorned with some poetry of equally iconic proportion. Those famous words welcoming immigrants to the U.S. were penned by poet Emma Lazarus. Both the statue and Lazarus’s words are recognized globally and are uniquely feminine. Both are being attacked as the war on women continues. In undermining Lazarus and Lady Liberty, the bonds Americans hold with the values the statue and Lazarus’s sonnet represent are more easily broken, and in doing so the fascists in power prevent the nation as a whole from embracing the feminist quality of inclusiveness, preached by Lazarus, and its benefits to the entire nation.
Trump’s apocalyptic horseman Stephen Miller recently attempted to claw back the meaning of the Statue of Liberty by implying the plaque containing Emma Lazarus’s famous lines of verse bore no meaning to the “original” purpose of the statue, which was to be a beacon for American Liberty “enlightening the world.” In today’s parlance, that’s alt-right code for revising history in order to legitimize the ongoing corporate colonization of the rest of the world, by force if necessary.
According to the U.S. Park Service, the monument was originally “built as a gift from France to the United States in order to commemorate the perseverance of freedom and democracy in the United States and to honor the work of the late president Abraham Lincoln.” Unfortunately there was no budget to build the base on which to mount the monument, so a fundraising campaign was initiated. Lazarus wrote The New Colossus in 1883 to help raise the money for the base on which the “Mother of Exiles” (aka Lady Liberty) has stood in full glory since 1886. Considering the statue’s proximity to Ellis Island, the poem simply struck a chord with the public, and the original intent became the foundation for its current meaning. To honor her work, the famous sonnet was inscribed on a plaque and affixed to the base 13 years after the statue’s completion. To say that the Mother of Exiles is not a beacon to immigrants seeking freedom is simply an unadulterated lie meant to distort history and diminish the role of women and immigrants in American history and culture.
Why attempt to desecrate Lady Liberty and Emma Lazarus instead of Uncle Sam and Benjamin Franklin? The fascist agenda is all about division, and it includes forcing women, especially those in low-income communities and in those of color, into second-class citizenship. There are at least a few who would prefer to see the 19th Amendment abolished all together. (Remember a week ago, when many Americans thought the alt-right were just a few loonies?) These female icons symbolize strength, courage, compassion, and conviction along with the call for inclusiveness. Undermining female icons like Lady Liberty and Lazarus undermines all women. Who’s next? Lady Justice and Mother Theresa?
The irony is that 1886 was also the year in which the Supreme Court granted corporations their first human right. Women would wait another 34 years and endure much suffering before ratification of the 19th Amendment on August 18, 1920, a major democratic moment for women and the nation. As the struggle to extend human rights to all people regardless of sex, gender, skin color, religion, age, and ability continues, many lessons from the suffrage movement can be learned. Among these is to remember Lazarus’s plea for inclusion.
While Lazarus had no significant ties to the Suffrage movement, she most definitely embodied a success too few women experienced then or now. On the other hand, the Suffrage movement embodies many of the strategies, tactics and pitfalls most movements experience. Split by racism and united again under the banner of inclusiveness, suffragists eventually forced a woman’s right to vote into the Constitution, and left us with many insights into how we can pass an amendment to abolish corporate constitutional rights.
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Sniping at the Statue of Liberty and Emma Lazarus is so 19th century. It is, however, serving a purpose: the destruction of democracy. Consider the connections between the conflagration in Charlottesville this past week and Miller’s statement two weeks ago, along with the original intent behind Lady Liberty and what she quickly came to symbolize. It’s looking more and more like an attempted unraveling of every civil rights gain since the Bill of Rights passed. Even those rights are on shaky ground: your right to assemble, right to protest, right to a fair trial, right to vote are all under attack. The 13th Amendment still allows for legal slavery. How’s your pursuit of happiness going? Make no mistake, our constitutional rights are being undermined and diminished day in and day out by courts and legislatures corrupted by corporate rule, and it’s been going on since the very year Lady Liberty was completed.
More importantly, the overall lack of democracy in the U.S. has helped to create not one, but two global catastrophes just waiting to happen: nuclear annihilation and devastating climate change. A lack of democracy has created huge inequities in the economy, education, housing, and healthcare as well. Our democratic republic has always been undemocratic, and is now clearly anti-democratic despite We the People being identified as the legal sovereigns of this nation. Our Constitution, written by rich white men—in secret—works against the 99% and must be amended to clearly articulate that only natural persons have constitutionally protected rights (corporations are not people), and money is not a form of protected political speech (money isn’t speech). Only then will We the People be free to prioritize human rights and other American values over corporate profits.
This time around, people who identify as women, womanist and feminist will play a significant role in the passage of the 28th Amendment, H.J.R. 48 The We the People Amendment and the transformation of our democracy, as should all others whose voice has been silenced by institutionalized oppression, fear and hatred.
As we observe the 97th anniversary of the 19th Amendment today and the establishment of women’s rights in the U.S., it is worth taking notice of the ongoing war on women in all its forms happening simultaneously with wars on people of color, poor folk, undocumented immigrants, non-cis-gendered folks, Muslims, indigenous people, the environment, science, and the multiple fronts on which the U.S. military is currently engaged. If We the People do not come together in the light of inclusiveness, corporate forces and their institutional operatives will keep on laying waste to our economy, landscapes, human rights, the animal kingdom, and the sovereignty of other nations.
It’s the 21st century, and it’s high time We the People unite in a movement to abolish corporate constitutional rights and money as protected political speech. It’s time to level the playing field, codify human rights, and create a democracy where We the People rule, not corporations. A dystopian fascist future is emerging and it is encouraging our society to repeat past mistakes and recreate those injustices already settled; the time has never been more right to join the Campaign to Legalize Democracy.