Local Photographer Remembers Fight for Gender Equality, Demonstration on Liberty Island
For all of the time spent debating whether New Jersey or New York really owns Liberty Island and its resident icon, the Statue of Liberty, a larger, more meaningful fight has been ignored. Indeed, as the two states tried to capitalize on every last tourist dollar — and the privilege of laying claim to the historically important signifier of liberty — a decades-old effort to ensure the country live up to that symbol was, for too long, ignored.
Fortunately, not everyone has forgotten the time when a few dozen gender equality advocates staged a permit-less demonstration on the island. One such attendee, local photographer Trix Rosen, was there at the nearly-forgotten demonstration 43-years ago. As both an activist and photographer, Rosen recalls the under-discussed event for JCI when on the morning of August 26, 1970 nearly 50 women boarded a ferry for Liberty Island.
The date was chosen to mark the 50th anniversary of the passing of the 19th Amendment in 1920, the year the United States joined many other countries in expanding the right to vote to include women. In the time since, despite winning the vote, women’s fight for equality had improved but not nearly enough. From the glass ceiling and long ignored sexual harassment in the workplace (and elsewhere) to the systemic injustice resulting from domestic disputes, true equality still remains a long way off. Which was why the demonstration was held in the first place: simply winning the vote was not enough.
Enter Rosen and her fellow advocates who mounted one of the most striking demonstrations in the country’s history, even if history books give little attention to it.
“It was the largest demonstration ever on behalf of women in the US and more than 20,000 women in NYC took to the streets that day,” Rosen says, who describes the effort to hang banners from the statue as “quite a gesture.”
Too bad those grand gestures are more often celebrated when there’s an abstract, uncontroversial message, such as the case of Philippe Petit who walked across a wire connecting the Twin Towers. The kind of generic humanism of Man on Wire is safer to celebrate because it doesn’t challenge political norms. And this demonstration wasn’t short on star power either. Despite the attendance of rising political writer icons in the gender equality movement such as Kate Millett and Bella Abzug at the event, only few references to the demonstration can be found.
According to Rosen, the group boarded the first morning ferry of the day to Liberty Island carrying hidden banners and signs made the night before in an uptown Manhattan apartment. From there the group split up, with some of the women climbing the hundreds of stairs up the Statue to unfurl their signs, while the rest of the activists waited on the ground below.
Then, as a banners unfurled to call for women of the world to unite, the group below broke out in chants — ‘Equal Rights for Women’ and ‘A Women’s Place is on the Workplace.’
“Soon, the Park Police Rangers arrived and told our group that we had to leave government property or we’d be arrested,” says Rosen. “How naïve we were in those days, to think we could hoist our banners for women’s equality at a national monument like the Statue of Liberty and have a demonstration at the base of the statue. And yet we did it!”
The group eventually did leave the monument and, but for Rosen’s rolls of film, there might not have been any evidence of the event.
“It is important to remember how many of us participated in women’s rights demonstrations 43 years ago because the fight for women’s rights and equality in the workplace is not over. In fact, now more than ever, women need to realize that what we have earned – economic opportunities, educational opportunities, job opportunities, reproductive rights and healthcare – is in danger of being stripped away from us. I’m concerned that we are a Supreme Court justice or two away from the turning back to a time when women ‘knew their place,’” Rosen continues.
It’s easy to forget how far the country had to go from Elizabeth Cady Stanton – one of the key women in the gender equality movement – in the mid 19th century to today (Stanton’s “Declaration of Sentiments,” which called for the right to vote for women, was considered so far fetched that even some of her supporters shied away from the demand at the time, preferring the Declaration focus on better treatment of women).
Over a hundred years after that Declaration, Rosen participated in the Liberty Island demonstration to let the country know that despite winning suffrage, there were still inequities to address. Women earned a fraction of what men did, despite the Equal Pay Act, and had limited access to universities, says Rosen. “Even if [women] did graduate, that did not lead to equal opportunity employment.” There were challenges to women trying to get credit cards, which wouldn’t be eased for another four years with the passage of the 1974 Equal Credit Opportunity Act.
How important was it to outline these rights by law? “In the early 1970’s I got fired from my graphic artist job after I asked to be allowed to wear pants to the workplace like my male colleagues,” says Rosen. In fact, equality came one step at a time, and each door that was closed required an separate effort to open it.
“It is important to remember the 1970 Women’s Strike for Equality when more than 20,000 women took over Fifth Avenue in defiance of the mayor of the City of New York, not as ancient history or nostalgia. We need to remember it with pride, courage, and with that same defiance. We need the same dedication and activism now,” says Rosen.
Now still, Rosen’s photography continues to inspire, educate, and break down barriers. As “a visual historian, photojournalist and an activist who supports and documents human rights issues,” Rosen sees the promise of photography, and works as an educator to spread its potential.
After a tsunami hit southeast Asian in 2004, Rosen began teaching kids in the area how to utilize a camera for self-expression. “I learned from the youth living at the orphanage in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, how empowering it was for them to discover a visual voice of expression. It was the same for the teens phasing out of the foster care system in the Bronx.”
“Unfortunately, that workshop did not continue. Hopefully, it will get funded in the future,” she says. “I am convinced it can be an effective advocacy project and a way to give a voice to our LGBTQ community.”
Rosen is currently preparing to work with the Jersey City Reservoir Preservation Alliance on a project called the INSIGHT OUT!Project Reservoir this August, which Rosen says “can be a creative, art based component adding to the educational opportunity already offered at the Reservoir.”
According to the proposal for the Reservoir project, the aim is to inspire “local youth to become responsible stewards of the environment and empowers them to make a difference in their school, at home and in their local communities. All of these goals are achieved by teaching teenagers digital photography at the Jersey City Reservoir where they can also learn about science, conservation and positive ways to impact the planet.”
While those photographs may well inspire action, equally important is to remember the photographs of the past, what they inspired then and what they can continue to inspire today.
Mel Kozakiewicz contributed reporting for this article
Photos courtesy Trix Rosen