The legend of Betsy Ross is a well-documented one, known by every American. The story goes that George Washington, William Morris and George Ross – representatives of the Continental Congress – arrived at Betsy’s house requesting her skills to make a new standard for the British colonies. While the stars and stripes design had already been agreed upon, it was Betsy who advised the use of a five-pointed star rather than six, as it would be easier to construct. And so, the American flag was born. Although there is no existing evidence to suggest any truth to this account, Betsy Ross still became a national icon and adopted the title ‘Founding Mother’ to stand alongside the Founding Fathers of America.
The legend only gained popularity after 1876 when her family decided to come forward with the story. Critical historians, such as Frisch, have claimed that Betsy’s descendents only intended to create a tourist attraction at a time of peak national pride, the United States centennial. Yet, even if that was their intention, Betsy quickly became one of the first prominent female symbols of the US, embodying national unity and pride. The flag alone was, and still is, considered important iconography for the US identity and Betsy was now the official mother of its creation. Additionally, with her links to George Washington, people were able to immortalise the two as parents to the nation through art work, such as ‘The Birth of Our Nation’s Flag’ by Charles Weisgerber painting the two on the same level, adoption of the story by school curriculums and eventually film portrayals.
Research conducted by Miller found that while many Americans currently accept the Betsy story, others “dismiss it altogether, believing Betsy Ross to be an all-but-fictional character made up by late Victorians and embraced so widely… because it is charming, and because it served a practical purpose for a nation grappling with the women’s suffrage movement”. While Betsy has been considered an example of female political engagement due to her request to change the star design, the reality of the legend still propagates a traditional and patriarchally romanticised narrative surrounding the nature of female work, to utilise their homemaking talents in aid of male advancement. Additionally, although there is great significance to a female national symbol, her connotations of motherhood strongly continue to invoke traditional gender roles and images of the Virgin Mary, the original female icon.
The case of the Betsy Ross legend, however, is not unique in its propagation of a female symbol to subtly promote standardised gender roles. In fact, when investigating the origins of Rosie the Riveter, a fictional persona, often considered an early feminist icon of a disseminated poster, promoting women to enter the workforce during the war effort, similarities can be found. Kimble and Olson both argue that the original poster was created to improve labour relations, rather than promote a shift in gender roles. The included corporate logo indicates that the poster was only intended for Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing employees, to bolster the current workforce rather than the whole female population of America, as the myth has come to imply. Yet, with the release of the 1942 song “Rosie the Riveter”, the concept of the fictional ‘Rosie’ character became the ideal symbol for the home-front spirit. The Westinghouse poster therefore became the face of a character designed to promote national unity and pride, (maybe add something here like ‘whilst as ever, maintaining gender normalities’ or something to reassert your point) whilst still maintaining gender normalities, just like Betsy Ross.
The use of women to promote national unity in times of great celebration or distress is extremely interesting as evidently two of the most prominent American female symbols tend to have links to motherhood. The mother’s traditional role was portrayed as needing to be the homemaker, uniting the family with her various domesticated skills. In the case of Rosie, her created intention was to inspire a female workforce to maintain the National ‘homefront’ in support of the male army. Additionally, Betsy became immortalised as a mother and creator of a national identity that was shaped and controlled by the work of male politicians. Although Rosie was absorbed into the dialogue of second wave feminism, with her notorious slogan “we can do it”, adopted to represent a collective sisterhood of women, her similarities to the Betsy story are undeniable. Before considering of feminism’s introduction upon lifestyles, western women were destined to be mothering symbols, whether that be to a home, a family, or a nation. However, it is still possible to suggest that perhaps the ‘mother’ symbol did not die with feminism, as even when Rosie was adapted during the second wave movement, she was still arguably utilised as the fictional ‘mother’ of a united sisterhood against patriarchal oppression. Additionally, Betsy is still regarded as a national treasure today and her story has not advanced beyond the traditionalist account even though she was also adopted as a symbol during the women’s suffrage movement. Perhaps this begs the question, to what extent is society still perpetuating traditional gender roles through female idols and symbols?
Frisch, M. “American History and the Structures of Collective Moment: A Modest Exercise in Emperial Iconography” Journal of American History, Vol.75(4). (March 1989) 1130-55
Menezes, J. “The Birthing of the American Flag and the Invention of an American Founding Mother in the Image of Betsy Ross” in Pickering, J. & Kehda, S. (eds) Narratives of Nostalgia, Gender and Nationalism (Palgrave Macmillan; 1998) 74-87
Miller, M. Betsy Ross and the Making of America (Henry Holt and Company; New York; 2010)
Miller, W. “The Betsy Ross Legend” The Social Studies, Vol.37(7). (November 1946) 317-323
Sharp, G. & Wade, L. “Secrets of a Feminist Icon” Contexts, Vol.10(2) (May 2011) 82-83
Betsy Ross sewing flag. Published circa 1908. From a painting by G. Liebscher. PD-US. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Betsy_Ross_sewing.jpg
Birth of our Nations Flag by C.H. Weisgerber. Library of Congress. ID: pga.02842. No known restrictions on publication. 1893. http://loc.gov/pictures/resource/pga.02842/
We Can Do It! war poster. J. Howard Miller (1918–2004), artist employed by Westinghouse, poster used by the War Production Co-ordinating Committee. PD US. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:We_Can_Do_It!.jpg