Essay №12: Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean
There is no question that the world will recognize the national personification of the American government or the United States, as Uncle Sam. You’ll likely recognize the posters of him pointing at you reading, “I want YOU. For U.S. Army.” Or maybe you wear him on your t-shirt at your backyard barbecue on the Fourth of July. Nevertheless, he has become a national icon that is often seen around the world as a symbol of America. Yet the earliest known personification of the United States was not a man. She was a woman. Her name was Columbia. Columbia is the feminine, powerful, personification of the United States of America, who has since the 1920s largely fallen out of view and silenced by Uncle Sam.
We as a patriarchal society are often conditioned to believe that the standard bearer is to be led by a man and be fearful of a powerful woman. That power imbalance often leads to toxic masculinity running through our families, our homes, our friend circles, our elections, our judiciary, our Congress and our White House. America is Columbia in the same way that England was Britannia. America is 241 years old, we’ve had 45 Presidents, and not a single one has been a woman. Yet, we personify our country as a woman, and she has only been “led” by male presidents. The language associated with the personification of our country and who leads it is penned by men. The power imbalance and patriarchy is evident in who we elect to serve — 45 men have led our country, a country who we assign feminine pronouns to. Take a moment and think about that.
I feel compelled to speak out because toxic masculinity in America is not just the fault of those who commit sexual assault, it is the fault of all men who knowingly or unknowingly embolden the patriarchy. I, as well as all men, bare the responsibility to do better. We are as responsible for the silencing of Columbia by Uncle Sam as we are for cases like Clarence Thomas, Bill Cosby, Bill O’Reilly, George H.W. Bush, Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore, Bill Clinton, Al Franken, Donald Trump and more. The impunity of all men when it comes to the economic, physical and cultural subjugation of women is on the record, apparent, and consistent.
America does not have a toxic masculinity problem. America does not have a sexual assault problem. Men have a toxic masculinity problem. Men have a sexual assault problem. And we, as men, are responsible for undervaluing women’s speech and constructing the fabrics of our society in such a way that it was seamless for us to accept Uncle Sam as more fit to serve than Columbia.
It is for men to challenge the hierarchy of power — for it is men in society who hold an imbalance of power. The abuse of power can not merely be confined to a new narrative and allow that to be the acceptance of a new order. It must start with those of us who have abused this power, both knowingly and unknowingly, to accept fault in enabling sexism, toxic masculinity, and its most heinous and all too common form, sexual assault. All men have abused this power imbalance in one form or another.
Men must start putting in some of the work that women have been doing for decades. Men must come forward and share how we’ve enabled the patriarchy. Men must come forward and acknowledge our problem. Men must start answering for themselves. This problem is systemic and it is uniquely the fault of men. We, as a society, will have succeeded when no woman feels like they should be quiet, feel uncomfortable to go running at night, feel like the burden of proof to prove sexual assault is on them and not the perpetrator or can enjoy the same comfort riding the elevator as men do, or ask “what did I do?”.
I am a man. And by nature of that, and that alone, I’ve enabled the patriarchy and the current system in which we’re under. I am sorry. And I stand in solidarity with all woman everywhere in the fight to end toxic masculinity, sexual assault, the power imbalance and the unjust impunity of all men.
“Celestial choir! enthron’d in realms of light,
Columbia’s scenes of glorious toils I write.
While freedom’s cause her anxious breast alarms,
She flashes dreadful in refulgent arms.
See mother earth her offspring’s fate bemoan,
And nations gaze at scenes before unknown!
See the bright beams of heaven’s revolving light
Involved in sorrows and the veil of night!
The Goddess comes, she moves divinely fair,
Olive and laurel binds Her golden hair:
Wherever shines this native of the skies,
Unnumber’d charms and recent graces rise.
Muse! Bow propitious while my pen relates
How pour her armies through a thousand gates,
As when Eolus heaven’s fair face deforms,
Enwrapp’d in tempest and a night of storms;
Astonish’d ocean feels the wild uproar,
The refluent surges beat the sounding shore;
Or think as leaves in Autumn’s golden reign,
Such, and so many, moves the warrior’s train.
In bright array they seek the work of war,
Where high unfurl’d the ensign waves in air.
Shall I to Washington their praise recite?
Enough thou know’st them in the fields of fight.
Thee, first in peace and honors — we demand
The grace and glory of thy martial band.
Fam’d for thy valour, for thy virtues more,
Hear every tongue thy guardian aid implore!
One century scarce perform’d its destined round,
When Gallic powers Columbia’s fury found;
And so may you, whoever dares disgrace
The land of freedom’s heaven-defended race!
Fix’d are the eyes of nations on the scales,
For in their hopes Columbia’s arm prevails.
Anon Britannia droops the pensive head,
While round increase the rising hills of dead.
Ah! Cruel blindness to Columbia’s state!
Lament thy thirst of boundless power too late.
Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,
Thy ev’ry action let the Goddess guide.
A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine,
With gold unfading, WASHINGTON! Be thine.
— Poet Phillis Wheatley