How the Smithsonian Is Honoring Remarkable American Women

From a series of coins to a museum in the making, their groundbreaking achievements gain new visibility

A portrait of Sally Ride and here childhood telescope
This Bushnell telescope allowed Sally Ride to gaze at her favorite constellation, Orion, and envision her future as an astronaut.  NASA; Eric Long / Smithsonian Institution

One of my favorite items in the Smithsonian collections is a small childhood telescope that belonged to Sally Ride. Those early years spent gazing up at the stars inspired Ride to become a physicist, an astronaut and, in 1983 aboard the space shuttle Challenger, the first American woman in space. “I never went into the astronaut corps to become a role model,” said Ride, who died in 2012. “But after my first flight, I began to understand the importance. You can’t be what you can’t see.”

Lucky for us, we are all about to see more of Sally Ride. This March, the United States Mint will circulate quarters stamped with Ride’s face as part of the 2022 American Women Quarters Program, alongside four other remarkable women: writer Maya Angelou, Cherokee principal chief Wilma Mankiller, suffragist Nina Otero-Warren, and film star Anna May Wong. I was honored that the Smithsonian could assist in the Mint’s selection process by consulting on history, concept and design. Not only during Women’s History Month but year-round, cultural institutions can do more to recognize and honor the vast contributions of women to our nation’s history. 

Ride herself stood on the shoulders of the many female aviators and pilots before her, women whose history I began to explore in depth when I was hired at the National Air and Space Museum in 1978. Like many Americans, I was familiar with the stories of Amelia Earhart and Bessie Coleman. Less familiar were women such as Jacqueline Cochran, the renowned racing pilot who led the Women Airforce Service Pilots during World War II. Cochran (who was featured in our December issue) privately funded a women’s astronaut testing project and later pushed NASA to start a program for women. It was thanks to the groundbreaking work of Cochran and her colleagues that Sally Ride had the chance to go to space two decades later. 

For three years, the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative has worked to uncover and amplify the fascinating and inspiring roles of women throughout American history—ordinary and extraordinary women who led movements or worked behind the scenes, changing the nation for the better with strength, ingenuity and courage. These same goals will guide the forthcoming Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum. And it is my hope that sharing this history will inspire the next generation of Sally Rides to set their sights on the stars. 

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