Why you should care
Because at the time, it was the biggest women’s movement the country had ever seen.
The women, led by 44-year-old Ivy Bottini, a founder of the first National Organization for Women chapter in the Big Apple, marched onto Liberty Island carrying sections of a large sign. After entering the giant statue at the base, they climbed to Lady Liberty’s platform and unfurled their defiant message: “Women of the World Unite!”
The date was Aug. 26, 1970, and at the time, it was the largest demonstration for women’s rights the United States had ever seen. Held on the 50th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote, the NOW-sponsored protest saw 20,000 women take to the streets of New York City to advocate for workplace, political, social and marital equality.
The protest included a strike, planned by legendary feminist Betty Friedan after Betty Jameson Armistead, another iconic women’s advocate, sent out a letter suggesting action. Planned over several months in collaboration with NOW, the protest began at 5 p.m. The City of New York had refused to close down Fifth Avenue for the occasion, but the sheer number of women brought traffic grinding to a halt just the same.
Riding Lady Liberty’s symbolic freedom was no mistake.
Although the demonstration was held on the East Coast, the call to action had a unifying effect for women all around the country. “Across the nation, feminists in coastal cities, as well as those in the heartland, no longer felt isolated,” writes Ruth Rosen in The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America. And when a group of women took over Liberty Island, branding France’s gift and America’s symbol of liberty with a feminist slogan, it was the culmination of an unforgettable day, according to Rosen, that “many feminists remembered … as a peak experience in their lives.”
Riding Lady Liberty’s symbolic freedom was no mistake. Women’s activist Cindy Cisler pointed to the irony “that a woman symbolizes the abstract idea of liberty, but in reality we are not free,” as retold in Simon Hall’s American Patriotism, American Protest: Social Movements Since the Sixties. ERAmerica, a lobby group pushing for the Equal Rights Amendment being debated by Congress at the time, also used Lady Liberty in its promotional materials. The hourslong protest on Liberty Island aimed to boost support for the ERA, which was never ratified.
While the event engaged and empowered women to believe in a brighter, more liberated future, a massive media backlash followed, denouncing the women’s movement as being without foundation and unnecessary. There were, of course, small strides: President Nixon declared it “Women’s Equality Day,” following the advice of New York Democratic Congresswoman Bella Abzug that he commemorate women’s suffrage. And, more importantly, the march is widely believed to have reignited a second wave of feminism because it gained media coverage — although not always favorable — and national support. As Judith Hole and Ellen Levine wrote in Rebirth of Feminism, for the first time, the “potential power of the movement became publicly apparent.”
That said, nearly five decades later, many of the movement’s goals have still not been realized. Lisa Levenstein, an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, points specifically to full abortion rights, child care and equal employment. But, she adds, the precedent was set in 1970. “Without the persistent pressure we have seen from several generations of feminists, these concerns would not even still be on the map,” she says, noting how feminists have kept the movement’s issues alive and continue to fight for them.
Levenstein also notes how intersectional feminism has since come to the fore. “The 1970 march was led by middle-class white women like Betty Friedan who did not center the goals of feminists of color,” she says. Last year’s march on Washington and subsequent events, meanwhile, have been “led by a diverse group, primarily women of color — and many who were queer and/or trans.” This more inclusive approach to women’s activism, she adds, has led to a more cohesive vision on issues such as immigrant rights, ending police brutality and racial profiling.
Indeed, recent marches weren’t held just in the United States; they took the entire world by storm, with women marching in far-flung corners of the globe from Washington, D.C., to McMurdo Station, Antarctica, and Indonesia to Kenya, much like they’re doing today. So when considering the legacy of the 1970 demonstration, delivering on the message of that unfurled banner at the Statue of Liberty might still remain a work in progress. But it’s one that has left a lasting impression on the notion of unity and what it means for women of the world to unite.