Liberty is a Woman

Barbara Taylor

Liberty is a woman. From the Roman goddess Libertas, to Delacroix’s bare-breasted Marianne astride the barricades of revolutionary Paris, to the Statue of Liberty in New York harbour - throughout western history Liberty has been depicted as female. Marina Warner, in her excellent Monuments and Maidens, attributes this to Woman’s cultural Otherness, her ‘ancient associations’ with ‘outsiderdom, with carnality, instinct and passion’.[1] (Popular media images of the punk-rock freedom-fighters Pussy Riot exemplify these associations.) As the more animalistic, the ‘wilder’ sex - the sex which must be ruled rather than ruling - Woman embodies a primal lust for liberty. The ironies are obvious: ‘No visitor, looking up at the colossus of the Statue of Liberty, imagines her appearance as a sign that women…enjo[y] privileged access to freedom.’[2]  As an allegory of Liberty, Woman symbolises a passion for freedom inherent to all human beings, while at the same time exposing the limits of liberty as an abstract ideal. What does liberty mean for women in a male-dominated world?

Who made man the exclusive judge, if woman partake with him of the gift of reasonThe first woman to pose this question in a systematic way was the late 18th century revolutionary feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Writing at the height of the French Revolution, when male political reformers on both sides of the Channel were proving reluctant to include women in their libertarian programmes, Wollstonecraft demanded to know how liberty could be the prerogative of one sex only:

          When men contend for their freedom, and to be allowed to 
           judge for themselves respecting their own happiness, 
          be [it] not inconsistent and unjust to subjugate women, 
          even though you firmly believe that you are acting in 
          the manner best calculated to promote their happiness? 
          Who made man the exclusive judge, if woman partake with 
          him of the gift of reason? [3]

     For both sexes, the attainment of happiness - by which Wollstonecraft meant not pleasure or self-gratification but something closer to the neoclassical ethical ideal of eudaimonia, meaning human flourishing or self-realisation - requires liberty. But what kind of liberty? The Georgian elite loved to boast about ‘English liberty’ while keeping an iron grip on a corrupt political system. Liberty was for the propertied classes only; for the poor there were vicious game laws, naval press warrants, wealth generated off the backs of dispossessed rural labourers and African slaves. Any criticism of such evils was met with cries of ‘sedition’ and ‘levelling.’

     Like other leftwing radicals of her day, Wollstonecraft had no truck with this version of liberty:  ‘Security of property!’ she wrote in her 1790 political tract, A Vindication of the Rights of Men: ‘Behold, in a few words, the definition of English liberty! And to this selfish principle every nobler one is sacrificed.’[4] Defending the French Revolution against its ideological opponents (notably Edmund Burke), Wollstonecraft argued that inequalities of wealth and rank were incompatible with liberty and the ‘sacred rights of man.’ Two years later, in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, she extended the argument: ‘There must be more equality established in society…[and] this virtuous equality will not rest firmly even when founded on a rock, if one half of mankind be chained to its bottom.’[5]  So long as women remained subordinate to men, ‘convenient slaves’ rather than equal citizens, true liberty would be impossible. ‘Equality is the soul of liberty,’ Wollstonecraft’s acolyte Frances Wright wrote in 1829. ‘[T]here is, in fact, no liberty without it.’[6]

     This equalitarian liberty Wollstonecraft also represented as a woman, but not as a fierce bare-breasted Marianne but as a godly ‘mother of virtue,’ progenitor of a better world. ‘[A] new spirit has gone forth, to organise the body-politic,’ she wrote exultantly in her history of the French Revolution, ‘and it will be impossible for the dark hand of despotism again to obscure it’s radiance…The image of God implanted in our nature is now more rapidly expanding; and, as it opens, liberty with maternal wing seems to be soaring to regions far above vulgar annoyance, promising to shelter all mankind.’[7] 

     The maternal image was typical of Wollstonecraft, who was always happy to employ feminine stereotypes when it suited her purpose. Today it seems sentimental and archaic, with echoes of that Tory bugbear the ‘nanny state.’ Yet it reminds us that - like life itself - liberty has its conditions of possibility. Many people now regard liberty and equality as incompatible political goals. Policies designed to promote greater economic and social equality, including female equality, are said to infringe our liberties. The structural inequalities that shape women’s lives, that limit their public roles and make them, as a group, poorer than men, more vulnerable to ‘austerity’ economics and welfare cutbacks, are shrugged aside.

     Yet without equality, Lady Liberty is no icon of freedom but a prisoner of gender – from which it will probably take another wave of feminist activism, another generation of Wollstonecraft’s daughters, to finally release her.  


Barbara Taylor is a Canadian-born Londoner whose books include Eve and the New Jerusalem: Socialism and Feminism in the 19th c (1983); Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist Imagination (2003); On Kindness (with Adam Phillips) (2009) and The Last Asylum (2014). She teaches history and English at Queen Mary University of London


[1] Marina Warner, Monuments and Maidens (1985), 292.

[2] Warner, Monuments, 17.

[3] Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792; The Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, 1989, vol 5), 67.

[4] Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790; The Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, 1989, vol 5), 14.

[5] Wollstonecraft, Rights of Woman, 211.

[6] France Wright, Course of Popular Lectures (1829), 54.

[7] Mary Wollstonecraft, An Historical and Moral View…of the French Revolution (1795; The Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, 1989), 22.

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