The majority of the United States’ circulating coins depict men, from former presidents to civil rights advocate Frederick Douglass to naturalist John Muir. Aside from the allegorical Lady Liberty, however, American women have largely been relegated to collectible and commemorative coins. Of the denominations currently accepted as legal tender, just three feature actual female figures: the Susan B. Anthony dollar, the Sacagawea dollar and the Alabama state quarter (which depicts Alabama native Helen Keller).
Come next year, at least two new faces are set to join these women’s ranks. As Bryan Pietsch reports for the New York Times, astronaut Sally Ride and writer Maya Angelou will be the first individuals honored through the U.S. Mint’s four-year American Women Quarters Program.
Between 2022 and 2025, the Mint plans to release up to 20 quarters (up to five each year) recognizing women “from a wide spectrum of fields, including, but not limited to, suffrage, civil rights, abolition, government, humanities, science, space and the arts,” according to a statement. The coins’ front side, or obverse, will feature a revamped design depicting George Washington.
“I wanted to make sure that women would be honored, and their images and names be lifted up on our coins. I mean, it’s outrageous that we haven’t,” Representative Barbara Lee, a California Democrat who co-sponsored the Circulating Collectible Coin Redesign Act (CCRA) authorizing the initiative, tells the 19th News’ Alexa Mikhail. “Hopefully the public really delves into who these women were, because these women have made such a contribution to our country in so many ways.”
Per the Mint’s website, officials are currently seeking suggestions for other “distinguished American women” to feature on the quarters. Members of the public can submit recommendations through this Google Form. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen—the first woman to hold the position—will select honorees in consultation with the Smithsonian’s American Women’s History Initiative (AWHI), the National Women’s History Museum and the bipartisan Women’s Caucus.
Federal law stipulates that all individuals depicted on U.S. currency must be deceased. (Ride died in 2012 at age 61, while Angelou died in 2014 at age 86.) Beyond this parameter, the Mint simply states that it hopes to feature women of “ethnically, racially and geographically diverse backgrounds.”
Coin enthusiasts have already proposed a wide range of potential honorees. Writing for Numismatic News, Patrick A. Heller presents a list of 46 suggestions chosen from hundreds of reader messages. Among the women named are civil rights advocate Mary McLeod Bethune, doctor and activist Elizabeth Blackwell, self-made millionaire Madame C.J. Walker, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation Wilma Mankiller, physicist Chien-Shieng Wu, and pilot Bessie Coleman. Harriet Tubman, whose likeness is slated to (eventually) grace the $20 bill, also appears.
“There is no doubt that the nation’s first president deserves his place on our currency,” write CCRA co-sponsors Senators Debra Fischer (R-NE) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) in a USA Today op-ed. “But we agreed that the other side of our quarters should also reflect more of the great Americans, particularly the women, who have played a part in our history.”
The Mint has announced seven different designs for the Angelou quarter, reports Isabella Meneses for ABC News. All reference the poet’s famed 1969 autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which endures to this day “as a stunning reminder of all the possibility that lies on the other side of silence and suffering,” as Veronica Chambers wrote for Smithsonian magazine early last year. One concept image shows Angelou spreading out her arms in front of a bird’s silhouette, while another interprets the book’s title more literally, finding her holding a birdcage in one hand and a blackbird in the other.
Ride—the first American woman in space—will be honored with five designs testifying to her work as both an astronaut and educator.
“As a woman who literally used her name and image as capital to launch an innovative youth science education program, it’s fitting and touching that her image will be emblazoned on actual currency,” says Edward Abeyta, who oversees the Sally Ride Science program at UC San Diego Extension, in a separate statement.
The first two quarters in the series will enter circulation in January 2022. Additional honorees will be announced in the coming months.