It's completely on trend for Western people to have a lovely lady as a symbol of national freedom. You might know the Brits have Britannia and the Americans have Lady Liberty, but the French counterpart is a demoiselle named Marianne. But what's Marianne's deal?

Along with legendary warrior-maiden Joanne of Arc, Marianne has been an icon of the nation  for generations. But rather than the Virgin Mary, long associated with the royal family, France's new republic chose a different lady to be their patroness: Marianne. During the time of the First Republic (which throve for twelve years, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century), a young Marianne wore a Phrygian cap, a soft, peaked hat that symbolized freedom from slavery in ancient Rome. By showing the symbol of France as finally liberated from enslavement, the leaders of the First Republic intimated that they had done the same by ousting the Bourbon kings. The hat even became known as the "red cap of liberty" in late nineteenth-century France.

But this Marianne was just one of her incarnations; depending on the political agenda of whichever Republic was in power at the time, Marianne changed. Another version was a sober matron who symbolized law, justice, and order. Rather than a red cap, Marianne had a crown of stars or wheat and corn (perhaps indicating prosperity and fertility). Alternatively, Marianne became a mature Greek woman holding the French constitution. Either way, she was a symbol of freedom against tyranny, however the last idea took shape.

During the Third Republic, Marianne became a strong, bold, beautiful lady representing freedom for the left, while Joan of Arc was used a symbol for the anti-Semitic folks on the right. In an article comparing these two, two professors opined, "Unlike Joan of Arc, Marianne was strong and sexualized and was oftendepicted either bare-breasted and/or as a revolutionary warrior leading the Frencharmy into battle against the enemy. She represented reason, justice, and thet riumph of the French people over an oppressive, monarchical government." 

Once France was conquered by Germany and under the Vichy rule, artists sought to eliminate images of liberal Marianne and instead went after conservative Joan. But once France was freed, so was Marianne. Indeed, the article noted, "In the post-war years, she [Marianne] was often depicted as a victorious figure or as a prisoner joyously released from the bonds of authoritarianism and injustice."

Today, Marianne is still a symbol of French freedom. A recent stamp bearing her image was controversial, though, when it was revealed a topless feminist activist inspired Marianne's pose. And since each French president has to choose a new representation of Marianne, her various incarnations have inspired tons of debate.

Feature image via F. Lamiot/Wikimedia Commons.