On March 15, during Women’s History Month, a bipartisan effort was launched in Congress to direct the U.S. Treasury to begin a new quarter dollar series that celebrates the centennial of the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920 that gave women the right to vote. That moment was the culmination of the women’s suffragist movement that began in 1848 when Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott invited female and male abolitionists to gather at Seneca Falls, New York.
Quarters would be issued for prominent American women who were residents of each state, the District of Columbia, and the territories who made significant contributions to the nation following the end of the current America the Beautiful quarter series. The last of those coins that honor the Tuskegee National Airmen Historic Site in Alabama is slated to be issued in early 2021.
The new coins would be issued starting on April 1, 2021, in alphabetical order in of the states beginning with Alabama and would presumably end in 2032, since five designs would appear each year (if the maximum number allowed in the bill’s language is issued), and there are 56 states and territories.
The legislation, H.R. 5308, the “Women’s History and Nineteenth Amendment Centennial Quarter Dollar Coin Program Act,” was introduced by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Bruce Poliquin (R-ME). As Rep. Lee said the day the bill was launched, “Since our nation’s founding, women have played an instrumental role in shaping our country — even though their sacrifices and accomplishments have often gone unrecognized by history. This important bill is designed to correct this historic wrong. By uplifting women on our currency, Americans will have an opportunity to learn more about the unsung pioneers who built the United States.”
Under current law, the Secretary of the Treasury has the authority to issue a second round of 56 America the Beautiful quarters after the current series ends, and a decision must be made by the end of 2018. If Secretary Mnuchin decides not to do that, quarters would revert to the obverse of George Washington based on the 1932 John Flanagan painting that last was used in 1998 before the start of the 50-state quarter program. The same thing would happen under the proposed legislation for a new program honoring women after it ends.
There certainly does not appear to be much interest among collectors in extending the ATB series. It is also true that collectors have indicated they are at this point feeling burnt out by long-running coin series with new designs, which is one of the reasons the proposed American Innovation $1-coin program, which passed the House in July and awaits action in the Senate, would likely not be met with much enthusiasm.
Will It Be Popular?
As for the proposed quarter series on prominent American women, the public may embrace it not only because of the current focus on women in our culture but also because the only U.S. coins with real women on them are those for the nation’s first ladies (who appeared on the 2006-2016 $10 gold First Spouse coins and the 1999 Dolly Madison silver dollar) and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who founded the Special Olympics and appears on a 1995 commemorative silver dollar.
Real American women have been strikingly absent from our circulating coinage throughout our history, which is remarkable considering the important role they have played in our history. Women do appear on some of our commemoratives such as the new Breast Cancer Awareness coins, the 2014 Civil Rights coin, and others, but they are not images of specific, actual women who lived.
Moreover, real American women other than the first ladies have appeared on many coins issued by foreign mints such as those that depict famous actresses like Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, and Marilyn Monroe.
As far as American collectors and numismatists, the jury is out on whether they would embrace the proposed series. So far, the only reaction is a brief post on the Coin Collectors Blog in which Scott Barman says that while it is “appropriate to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Women’s Suffrage, maybe it should be a commemorative coin with the proceeds going to an organization like the League of Voters.”
Mr. Barman’s opposition to the quarter proposal centers on his view that it would be challenging to design coins commemorating the 19th amendment, especially since a state such as Maryland rejected the amendment in 1920, then the legislature ratified it in 1941, and the right to vote was finally certified only in 1958. But at the time he made his comments, the text of the bill was not available.
The bill itself proposes an innovative approach to selecting the women who would appear on the coin, one that is partially based on the U.S. currency redesign movement of the past few years that began with the “Women on 20’s” group, which allowed citizens to vote on who they wanted to see on a new $20 bill to replace Andrew Jackson. Their response was Harriet Tubman, the famous black abolitionist.
In 2016, then-Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced that a new $20 would be issued featuring Tubman and that the design would be revealed in 2020, but current Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said last year and again in January that his department has not decided whether Tubman will appear on the $20 bill.
The legislation for the proposed quarter series says that the governor or executive of each state or territory would recommend a design to the Treasury in consultation with various stakeholders, which would include the chief executive of each state, the District of Columbia, and territory; artists from each state; U.S. Mint engravers; and “ members of the general public from groups or organizations that are pursuing a mission focused on increasing the inclusion of women or improving the quality of life for women.”
The bill also specifies that, as usual, the Committee on Fine Arts and Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee (CCAC) would review the designs.
The bill does not go into much detail on what process would be used to gather the input of the stakeholders, and that will presumably be developed later if the bill gathers support in the Congress and moves forward.
But the legislation also stipulates that by December 1 of this year the Treasury Secretary should begin “a program to promote the collection of, and recognition of the subjects of, the coins” to be issued.
It also specifies that no living person can be depicted, a long-standing requirement of our circulating coinage, and that the designs, which would appear on the reverse of each coin, cannot feature “a head and shoulders portrait or bust of any person, living or dead” or any “depiction of an individual in a size such that the coin could be considered to be a ‘two-headed’ coin.”
This language presumably means the depiction of the women on each coin would either show them in the process of doing that for which they were best known, as was the case on the gold spouse coin reverses, or could show them in a full-figure depiction (which would be challenging for a coin the size of a quarter).
Selecting the Women
The process of determining which women will appear on each coin also has great potential in educational terms. As the press release that was issued on March 16, the day after the bill was introduced, notes that “By using a credible, legitimate, and thoughtful process of educational and community stakeholder outreach similar to the currency redesign process on 2015, this program could provide the first-ever opportunity to institutionalize historical American women into classrooms across the country since curriculum standards are primarily determined at the state level.”
In addition, most Americans are very proud of their own state and its historic accomplishments, and the process of deciding which women from their state should appear on their state’s quarter is one that will hopefully be embraced with considerable enthusiasm and will enable children and adults to learn more about women from their state.
The women who might appear on the proposed quarters could be some of the same individuals considered during the Women on 20s project such as Tubman, Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Vilma Mankiller, who made it to the final round, or those from earlier rounds such as Alice Paul, Barbara Jordan, Betty Friedan, Shirley Chisolm, Sojourner Truth, and others.
That group mostly includes women famous for their roles in politics, civil rights, and women’s rights, which is of course appropriate, but the potential candidates should also include scientists, teachers, astronauts, and others.
One woman that comes to mind is Sally Ride, the first female astronaut, who was from California. Another is Christa McAuliffe, the New Hampshire teacher who died on the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, who was planned to be honored with a commemorative coin in legislation that was introduced last year but which has failed to move forward.
It is easy to foresee that it will be very challenging to settle on just one woman for each state or territory, and that is an area where not just the Treasury Secretary’s report, but also online public voting would be very useful.
Bringing democracy to our coinage would make everyone who participates in the process a stakeholder, rather than only those groups specified in the bill’s current language, which can be amended. Similarly, the coin design process should be made open to outside artists and those who work for the Mint, especially since design competitions have long produced some of our best coinage.
Another interesting aspect to the series is that it calls for the issuance of silver bullion quarters made of five ounces of .999 fine silver in addition to the circulating coins and Uncirculated and Proof versions made of clad and silver for Mint and Proof sets.
Collectors may fail to embrace another five-ounce silver series in large numbers either because of rising silver prices, fatigue with large silver coins, or a potential negative reaction to the subjects and designs considering frequent references to political correctness from some collectors every time a coin with a female is proposed. Moreover, the 2013 Girl Scouts coins did not sell very well and failed to produce any surcharges for the Girl Scouts of the USA.
Changing Hobby Demographics
Because older, white males are still the ones buying the more expensive precious metal and rare coins it is easy to overlook the role played by other demographic groups in the hobby.
The proposed series will be an important bellwether of just how much change is really occurring in the hobby as younger collectors and more women join it. For example, a young female might receive her first quarter of the new type in change and become interested in coins for the first time.
Much will depend, as always, on the quality of the art that appears on the coins. If the designs are considered artistically compelling by a considerable number of collectors, they will purchase them and build sets of the coins.
The proposed new quarter dollar series provides a great opportunity for artists both within and outside the U.S. Mint to create designs which move beyond the never-ending portraits and busts of our coinage and inspire people to want to know more about the individuals depicted.
It is worth noting that the Paris Mint is currently in the process of issuing a multi-year series of 10-euro silver commemoratives that honor famous French women and has been well-received by collectors. The 2016 gold Joan of Arc coin received the 2018 Krause Coin of the Year award for most historically significant coin.
A new quarter series is probably not something many collectors are currently clamoring for, but a circulating and numismatic quarter dollar program that honors American women, if done right, could help to breathe new life into numismatics; create coinage that more accurately reflects our history and the individuals who helped shape it; and make our coins more like those of other countries, which could also potentially broaden the collector base of the coins to overseas collectors.
If you support this program, you can contact your representative in Congress and ask them to support the legislation (H.R. 5308).
Louis Golino is an award-winning numismatic journalist and writer specializing in modern U.S. and world coins. His work has appeared in Coin World, CoinWeek, The Numismatist, Numismatic News, and COINage, among other publications. His first coin-writing position was with Coin Update.
In 2015, his CoinWeek.com column, “The Coin Analyst,” received an award from the Numismatic Literary Guild for best website column. By 2017, he received an NLG award for best article in a non-numismatic publication with his “Liberty Centennial Designs,” which was published in Elemetal Direct.