Columbia: The First American Lady
Long before Uncle Sam or Lady Liberty inspired Americans, Lady Columbia was here.
By: Kelli Ballard | May 7, 2021 | 541 Words
Before the iconic figure of Uncle Sam with his white hair and top hat encouraging men to join the military to fight for their country, there was Lady Columbia. While Uncle Sam’s persona has flourished and is well-known today, the lady of America seems to be all but forgotten. Who was she and why was she so important to the New World and its development?
Her story begins at the beginning, before the New World was America. In the 16th century, explorers visited the unknown land and started sending home descriptions of what they saw. It was at this time that some European artists created a figure to stand for the New World, naming her Amérique, or as we say today, America. She was considered a queen that represented the land.
At that time, she was drawn to look like the indigenous peoples of the area, wearing bright feathers and carrying native weapons. Artists also drew her surrounded with exotics from the New World, including alligators, parrots, sugar, jewels, pearls, and other goodies, which intrigued the Europeans.
Lady Amérique Inspires Settlers
By the mid-18th century, Amérique’s image started to change. While she kept the feathers, she also gained other accessories, including a rattlesnake, a chain with 13 links to represent the spirit of independence for the 13 colonies, and a Liberty cap on a pole.
During the Revolutionary War, Amérique remained a symbol for the settlers, visually reminding them that they were far different than those from England with her native attire and warrior weapons. To the colonists, it represented their rebellion against the mother country.
After the war, Amérique’s feathered headdress was replaced with ostrich plumes, which were popular at the time, and she was covered in Greco-Roman draperies.
Lady Amérique Becomes Lady Columbia
By the late 18th century, Amérique had completely changed to a woman with golden hair, dressed in white or wearing stars and stripes, and her name had changed to Columbia, which came from Christopher Columbus. Depending on the image, Lady Columbia was equipped with the sword of justice, the cap of liberty, an olive branch of peace, or the laurel wreath of victory.
Although Columbia was not intended to symbolize political power for women at the time, she did inspire females during World War I to join in the war efforts as nurses and in other areas, and later she inspired the movement for women’s suffrage. President Woodrow Wilson, in 1918, was so inspired by contributions from women, that he said:
“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 acknowledgment they ask is their admission to the suffrage. Can we justly ignore it?”
In 1920, the 19th Amendment was ratified – and not long after, Lady Columbia was all but forgotten. Lady Liberty, or the Statue of Liberty, soon took her place. But Columbia’s centuries of inspiration and symbolism should never be forgotten.