Editor’s Note: Barbara Lee is a Democratic representative from California’s 13th congressional district. She worked on Shirley Chisholm’s presidential campaign in 1972. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
Each day when we reach into our wallet, we are reminded of our nation’s founding fathers. For every cup of coffee or loaf of bread we purchase, we look down and see the faces of men like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin.
While these men should be recognized for their contributions to the great American experiment, we have failed to honor so many others who also made America into what it is today: women.
Women have been an integral part of creating a more equal and just society. We’ve been at the forefront of the struggle for civil rights, voting rights and human rights, including the push for reproductive justice. We have been innovative leaders, thinkers and doers in every field, including mathematics, science, technology, arts and the humanities.
Frankly, our nation is all the better for it. It is past time we honor the “sheroes” of American history and memorialize them on our currency.
Soon, when you receive change at the store, you might get lucky and get the new quarter depicting Maya Angelou – a leader in the civil rights movement, a poet laureate, college professor, Broadway actress, dancer and the first female African American cable car conductor in San Francisco.
Angelou’s brilliance and artistry inspired generations of Americans and she, alongside other phenomenal women in history, will be displayed on our currency as part of the American Women Quarters (AWQ) Program.
The AWQ Program is a product of my bipartisan legislation with Republicans Rep. Anthony Gonzalez of Ohio and Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska and Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez of Nevada, the Circulating Collectible Coin Redesign Act of 2020.
It is meant to reimagine the way we honor American heroes on our currency by creating a series of circulating quarters starting this year through 2025. The last time a woman appeared on US currency was nearly two decades ago in 2003, when Helen Keller was depicted on the Alabama state quarter for the 50 State Quarters Program.
It is my hope that diverse American women will be chosen and depicted, celebrating the accomplishments of our nation’s historical leaders, thinkers and innovators. For this year’s circulation, the US Mint also selected Sally Ride, the first American woman in space; Wilma Mankiller, the first woman elected principal chief of the Cherokee Nation; Adelina Otero-Warren, a voting rights activist and the first woman superintendent of public schools in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Anna May Wong, one of the first Chinese American Hollywood stars.
These and so many other phenomenal women deserve the same honor and legacy given to our founding fathers. The US Mint will be releasing new names for next year in the coming months.
I began working on this legislation in 2017 in collaboration with former US Treasurer Rosie Rios. As the last quarter program was set to expire, we felt it would be an incredible opportunity to honor, teach and memorialize the achievements of phenomenal women throughout our history. With the centennial of the 19th Amendment that granted women the right to vote fast approaching, we wanted to use the anniversary as a way to celebrate and honor the voices of phenomenal women.
However, as we know, many Black women and women of color were excluded from the right to vote and fought beyond its ratification to secure that basic right for themselves. It is my hope that we continue to celebrate the achievements of the many women of color and Black women trailblazers who have left a profound legacy on our country, like Harriet Tubman and brave abolitionists who led countless enslaved people to freedom.
And while this symbolism is important, it is just one of the many efforts to adequately acknowledge and respect women’s contributions, like fighting to close the gender pay gap, protect the right to comprehensive reproductive health care, secure paid leave, child care and much more.
For far too long, the accomplishments of women have gone overlooked and underappreciated. It is past time we memorialize women whose work embodies diversity, innovation and courage – some of the virtues that built this country.
This is just the beginning. Women’s history is our history. I hope that these coins will motivate people to learn about the major contributions of these women in history, hear the stories of their lives and inspire the next generation of leaders. Young people should know just as much about Shirley Chisholm, Fannie Lou Hamer, Sylvia Rivera and Patsy Mink, as they do about Washington, Lincoln and Franklin.
If you soon find yourself holding a Maya Angelou quarter, may you be reminded of her words: “Be certain that you do not die without having done something wonderful for humanity.”