Recognition of women's contributions to American history is so long overdue that I guess I should be grateful for anything. Yet I wonder who made the decisions about the new images of women on quarters (presumably the Treasury Department, which authorizes coinage), and why they don't ask the opinions of historians specializing in women's history. At least they didn't ask me, although the reference desk at the Library of Congress has given my name to other inquiring institutions.
I may be an elderly curmudgeon, but I feel that I've spent my life reminding people that women's history did not begin in 1970. It's true that is when it began to be acknowledged as an academic field, albeit often shuntered off into departments of "women's studies." I was part of the activism of that era, holding offices in NOW and other organizations that revolutionized American culture, so I'm not demeaning the importance of that time.
But I had majored in American history, and from the beginning, I saw that my friends in the feminist movement often had no knowledge of women in the past. Indeed how could they, given that women were very nearly excluded from high-school history? Beyond that, though, I sensed resistance among most feminists to accept that their elders ever had done anything. In fact, I once proposed a book on women in the 1950s: I had written a successful one on women during World War II and wanted to follow up with the next decade. My agent's response: "Nothing happened in the 1950s; that was my mother's generation."
She clearly didn't know, for instance, about Anna Rosenberg, who was an assistant secretary of defense in that era, at the direct request of generals who had observed her during the war. Earlier, at one of the first NOW meetings in Massachusetts, I debated proponents of the Equal Rights Amendment, who clearly did not know that Eleanor Roosevelt and other progressives opposed the ERA, for what seemed to these knowledge women to be good reasons. Their reasons are not valid today, but going into a legal and political battle with no understanding of the case history is just arrogantly stupid.
HONORING WOMEN: THE NEW QUARTER COINS, PART TWO
So it is the emphasis on our own times that distresses me. In alpha order, the five women featured on the new coins will be Maya Angelou, an African-American writer; Wilma Mankiller, a Native American activist; Nina Otero-Warren, a suffragist in New Mexico; Sally Ride, the first woman in space; and Anna May Wong, a Chinese-American film star. Angelou, Rider, and Mankiller died only recently. Otero-Warren and Wong belong to the 20th century, not the 21st, but it seems to me that the committee choosing the honorees went hunting specifically for a Hispanic and an Asian woman – and didn't do very well even in that limited quest.
If they needed a fill-in-the-blank Asian woman, Hollywood celebrity Wong was not the right choice. I would have nominated Chien Shiung Wu. Born in China in 1912, she earned a doctorate at the University of California and then joined the physics department of Columbia University. She worked on the Manhattan Project that produced the atomic bomb, and in 1957, Columbia announced that Dr. Wu's experiments had disproved the law of parity, which had governed physics since the field began.
Mankiller, who inherited that surname, has credentials as the first female chief of Oklahoma's Cherokees – but there were many female chiefs early in American history. They were warriors who led men in battle, including a woman called Wetamoo, whose head was displayed in Taunton, Massachusetts, when her tribe lost a 1676 battle against Americans. Many Native American women were akin to Pocahontas – a real woman who actually died in England, visiting her husband's family – in that they saw the future and assisted peaceable American men, including scientific explorers such as Lewis and Clark.
Sacajawea is the most famous of these and has been honored previously, but in that same place and time, let me point out Marie Dorian. A member of the Iowa tribe, she began a 3,500-mile trek from St. Louis to the Oregon coast in 1811. She traveled further and suffered more hardships than Sacajawea: she had two young children and bore a third on the journey. When her husband, who had French and Sioux heritage, was killed by natives on their return trip in 1814, she escaped with their children. By slaying her horse and sheltering in its carcass during a blizzard, she and two children survived to hike the mountains of the Pacific Northwest -- alone.
I had to look up Nina Otero-Warren, but was glad to see that I included her in the New Mexico section of my two-volume American Women in Politics. It's just a mention, though, and her hyphenated name indicates that she married an Anglo. I would have chosen Soledad Chavez Chacon, who was elected as the nation's first female secretary of state in 1922. I researched this book when internet communication was just beginning, and I remember how happy a New Mexico scholar was to get my mailed letter. He had written a small book on Chacon and was delighted to see her recognized. How sad that there has been so little follow-up, especially now that we see the importance of secretaries of state in national elections.
I suppose that the response from the Treasury Department would be that modern images are needed to encourage quarter collecting. Yet that primacy of sales would seem to be disproved by the long delay in the promised image of Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. I consider Tubman, who overcame numerous disabilities, to be the most courageous American ever, be they white, black, brown, or purple, and I'm sure people would rush to get initial printings of those twenties.
That was the case with the women's suffrage postage stamp issued for 1920, the anniversary of the 19th Amendment that gave women in every state the right to vote. I bought several sheets of those stamps and framed one of them – and when I went back to get more, was told there would be no more. I blamed that tool of Trump, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, but the new Biden administration, where are you?
ODDS AND ENDS, PART ONE
Along those same lines, I noticed that victims of the recent disastrous fire in New York City were taken to the Jacobi Medical Center. That is named for Mary Putnam Jacobi and her pediatrician husband, who was an exile from Europe's 1848 revolutions. Before they married, she went to France to become a credentialed physician. She had to overcome a great deal of prejudice, but when Dr. Putnam returned to the US in 1871, she was better educated than most physicians. She established a successful practice while also rearing three children, and her Common Sense Applied to Woman Suffrage was very useful in debates about women's physical capacity for voting.
Speaking of voting, I'm sure that you are like me in seeing online opposition to the proposed federal Voting Rights Act. One of the most popular arguments is that photo IDs are necessary in many aspects of life, so why not in voting? That seems reasonable until you recall that it is primarily private businesses who ask you to present a photo ID, not the government. We've never had photo IDs on Social Security cards, which is the most important document for most of us.
I thought of this when I watched "The Zookeepers Wife," a true story about the Warsaw Zoo during World War II. Polish resisters to the German invasion used it as an escape route for imprisoned Jews, and one of the scenes showed anti-fascists ripping off photos from government documents that identified a person as Jewish. Personal documentation long had been common in Europe, and even before photos, "papers" were an effective tool for monarchs and dictators. Although probably unintended, insistence on voter photo identification may well be a step towards fascism. Our voting systems are working well, and the biggest problem is those who spread lies about non-existent fraud.
ODDS AND ENDS, PART TWO
There's lots of attention lately to the student loan crisis, and some letters to the editor from people who worked hard to pay off theirs and don't want debt forgiveness for today's students. I paid off mine, too, but I would remind these objectors that the interest rate was just three percent – and the debt was cancelled after working in a field that the nation needed, including the teaching that I did.
The student loan program began while I still was in high school, when America was shocked by Soviet superiority in space exploration. Congress and the Eisenhower administration began it to encourage kids from working-class families to go to college. The easy repayment was because the loans were directly from the federal government -- and the problems began when they were outsourced to private banks, which (of course) intend to make a profit. Now millions of people struggle with loans they may never be able to repay, and it is past time to reexamine our national values about this.
In the slightly different area of taxes, I remember a conversation with a former US senator. (I'll do him the favor of not naming him). Our daughter was a Harvard student at the time; she went on to earn two more expensive degrees. I told him that my older sister and her husband had taken employees of their paving company to the Super Bowl and written off that as a business expense, while my younger sister and her husband, who was in the automotive business, did the same when they went to NASCAR races. Yet Hubby and I could not write off our daughter's educational expenses. I asked the senator if that was the best investment for America, and he walked away from the conversation.
Finally, speaking of education, I trust you have seen the news about the school system in Jefferson County, one of Florida's poorest. Under Republican Governor Rick Scott, the state took away the powers of the elected school board and placed the system under a private corporation. That proved a failure, and now the provider refuses to renew its contract. Several Republican believers in profit-making education, including guys close to Governor Ron DeSantis, jumped in to give the contract to themselves, and now the fight is between these dishonorable non-educators.
My solution? Give the power back to the school board that citizens elected. And if they can't find teachers who want to live in the benighted Panhandle area, they could contract with Teach for America. Check it out.