Meet 'Wonder Woman 1776' this Independence Day

Meet 'Wonder Woman 1776' this Independence Day
© Library of Congress

Independence Day has historically led to big box office numbers during the July 4 weekend. The "Los Angeles Times" observed in 2018 that "the national holiday is now as closely associated with superheroes and Will Smith as much as barbecues and fireworks." The COVID-19 pandemic has delayed the release of many movies, including, "WONDER WOMAN 1984," the superhero sequel that was scheduled to open in June 2020. It will now hit theaters in October. While we can't watch Wonder Woman lasso into a 1980s mall or battle Cold War villains on the White House's checkerboard hallway, we can discover another goddess this Independence Day: AMERICA 1776. 

America is the female Latin word for Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, who determined that the new world wasn't East Asia but a new continent. Following the tradition of using female names for land, mapmakers named this continent America while artists in the 1500s personified this paradise as a woman, often as a naked Mother Earth. By the time the United States of America was born on July 4, 1776, through the Declaration of Independence, America had changed into a resilient goddess, fully clad in Grecian robes. She was known as both America and Columbia. 

Numerous poems about Columbia filled newspapers. "Celestial choir! Enthron’d in realms of light, Columbia’s scenes of glorious toils I write," Phyllis Wheatley wrote in a poem that she sent to General George Washington. By this time Wheatley had become the first African-American to have a book published. "Fix’d are the eyes of nations on the scales, for in their hopes Columbia’s arm prevails." Washington loved Wheatley's poem so much that he arranged to publish it in newspapers in 1776.  

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After the United States won the Revolutionary War, a Boston almanac published a map-like drawing featuring two women: Britannia and America. Britannia was weeping next to her discarded trident and shield while trade ships from other countries sailed toward an independent America. America was pictured as a confident, resilient Greek goddess sitting under the U.S. flag. She held a staff topped by a liberty cap in one hand and an olive branch in the other. Though she didn't wear magic bracelets, she was Wonder Woman 1776-style.

While America was depicted as a virtuous goddess from the nation's start, the irony is that most real women — except in New Jersey — did not have the right to vote. Abigail Adams recognized a need to legally protect women. Several weeks before the Continental Congress issued the Declaration of Independence, Abigail called on her husband and Congressman, John Adams, to "remember the ladies" as he made a new code for the United States. 

This was a mind-blowing proposition for Adams. At this time, only landowners, about 16 percent of the population in Massachusetts for example, were eligible to vote in the nation's early decades and only about 3.5 percent actually voted. Roughly 84 percent of the population couldn't vote. Most men, whether black or white, along with women could not vote in this class-driven system because they did not own land.  

New Jersey was the exception. For 30 years women landowners there enjoyed the right to vote until Democratic-Republican politicians took it away to prevent women from voting for the Federalist Party in 1808. Party politics setback women's voting rights.

The woman's suffrage or voting movement began in earnest in 1848, when a group of visionary women claimed that the Declaration of Independence applied to women. Their journey lasted decades and required resilience, which is perseverance on a spring.

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The resilient image of Columbia re-emerged and played a vital visual role in the final push for women's voting rights. More than 5,000 women from around the nation participated in a women's suffrage parade in Washington D.C. in March 1913. Their goal was to secure a constitutional amendment granting all women in all states voting rights. 

This parade unfolded like a documentary. Parade participants depicted different women's roles: mothers, labor workers, college graduates, professionals, and representatives of their states. Leading this messaging was Hedwiga Reicher, a German-American silent film actress. Reicher, "attired as 'Columbia' in the national colors and a liberty cap, stepped slowly from the shadows of the giant marble pillars on the porch of the Treasury [building]," Stamford, Connecticut's Daily Advocate published on March 3, 1913.

Columbia heard the sounds of the parade "the crusade of women -- and summoned to her side Justice, Charity, Liberty, Peace, and Hope, all represented by prominent suffragettes attired in artistic flowing drapery."

To the tune of the Star-Spangled Banner and while large U.S. flags unfurled, Columbia stood resilient and held her eagle-topped staff. Though it took creative courage and a night of terror, as I write about in my new book, Resilience on Parade: Short Stories of Suffragists and Women's Battle for the Vote, by early June 1920, both houses of Congress had passed the 19th Amendment granting all women the right to vote. The U.S. Secretary of State certified the ratified 19th Amendment on August 26, 1920. 

The image of Columbia had a resurgence and became a popular image on World War I posters and the branding for Columbia Pictures. Wonder Woman first appeared in a comic book in 1941. Just as Columbia metaphorically guided the Revolutionary War and women's suffrage, so Wonder Woman's goddess-like strength and justice presented an alternative utopia during World War II. 

Independence Day 2020 is an opportunity to celebrate America and women winning the right to vote 100 years ago. It's an opportunity to parade resilience and bounce back from the COVID-19 pandemic. While we can't watch "WONDER WOMAN 1984" at movie theaters this Independence Day, we can take pride in the resilient America of 1776 and the image we still see of her today through the Statue of Liberty.

Jane Hampton Cook is a screenwriter and author of 10 books including the new book "Resilience on Parade: Short Stories of Suffragists and Women's Battle for the Vote." She was the first female White House webmaster.