This Fourth of July, the immigrant activist Therese Patricia Okoumou 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.
Yet Okoumou isn’t the first person to employ Lady Liberty in getting her message across. 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.
Lady Liberty wonders why she can’t vote.
The Statue of Liberty became a potent symbol for dissenters starting with its unveiling on October 28, 1886. Suffragists objected to the use of a female statue as a symbol of liberty when real women in the U.S. didn’t have the right to vote.
“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,” remarked Matilda Joslyn Gage, one of the suffragists who protested the unveiling event.
The New York State Woman Suffrage Association 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.
No matter. There was a parade of ships sailing by the island to celebrate the unveiling that day, so 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.
Lady Liberty joins women’s lib.
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, urged women to forego paid and unpaid work in order to draw attention to gendered disparities in employment, education and household responsibilities.
“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 every one who is doing a job for which a man would be paid more stop,” she announced during the organization’s annual convention, according to TheNew York Times.
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.
Lady Liberty takes a stand against Vietnam.
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.
“When we were in Vietnam we excused our actions because we thought that we had no choice,” they wrote, according to a New York Times article published during their occupation in December 1970.“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.”
The occupation was part of a series of simultaneous protests that Vietnam Veterans Against the War held around the country at that time. When the Statue of Liberty protesters ended their occupation, they declared it a victory.
“Did we succeed?” said Al Hubbard, director of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, according to another Times article. “Of course, we did. We got the war back on Page One, where it belongs.”
Lady Liberty dons the Puerto Rican flag.
In October 1977, Puerto Rican nationalists draped a Puerto Rican flag across Lady Liberty’s crown. For decades, residents of the U.S. territoryhad 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.
These 30 Puerto Rican nationalists occupied the Statue of Liberty for several hours. According to The New York Times, their main demand was the release of four militant nationalists who had participated in a shooting at the U.S. House of Representatives in 1954 to protest the colonial status of Puerto Rico.
Two years later, President Jimmy Carter commuted the sentences of those four individuals: Oscar Collazo, Rafael Cancel Miranda, Irvin Flores Rodriguez and Lolita Lebron. Carter based his decision on a favorable recommendation from the Attorney General and the Secretary of State’s judgement that it would be a positive humanitarian gesture.
Lady Liberty has had dissenters from other countries, too.
In 1979, 40 unarmed Muslim students loyal to the 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.”
And 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., The New York Times reported—including setting off a bomb at the Yugoslav Mission to the United Nations and hijacking a TWA jetliner. Their goal: Croatian independence from Yugoslavia.
Their Statue of Liberty bomb blew up during off hours, and no one was hurt. But the attack prompted the National Park Service, which operates the monument, to increase its security measures.