This is a guest post by Maria Peña, a public relations strategist in the Library’s Office of Communications.
Maya Angelou broke ground as a multifaceted author, poet, actress, recording artist and civil rights activist, while Adelina “Nina” Otero-Warren left an indelible mark in New Mexico’s suffrage movement. This year, both are among five trailblazing women to appear on the U.S. quarter — on the flip side from George Washington — for the first time, so keep an eye on your pocket change and get your coin collector boards ready!
Angelou is the first Black woman to be featured on U.S. currency. Her coins will begin circulating this month. Otero-Warren is the first Latina to do so, with her coin appearing in August. Both will help ensure that future generations learn about these remarkable women’s place in American history.
“It is huge to have her (Otero-Warren) on the coin,” Anna M. Nogar, an associate professor of Hispanic Southwest Studies at the University of New Mexico, said in an interview. “She is a very significant figure in New Mexico. She worked so hard for women’s suffrage ̶ that was extremely important ̶ but she also spearheaded efforts in other parts of the political sphere.”
Through its American Women Quarters Program, established by a 2020 bill, the U.S. Mint is paying tribute to women who have contributed to social advancement in this country. The list of honorees for this year’s rollout includes Sally Ride, the first American woman astronaut in space; Wilma Mankiller, the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation; and Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American film star in Hollywood.
The Library recognizes women trailblazers, including these and many others, in its collections, events and exhibitions. Two current exhibitions are “Shall Not Be Denied,” about the campaign for women’s voting rights, and “In Her Own Words,” about the life of Rosa Parks. Parks is featured in a short documentary. Crowdsourcing campaigns to digitize the Library’s papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mary Church Terrell and Susan B. Anthony and others have drawn hundreds of thousands of volunteers.
Angelou, longtime friends with Parks, was already a well-known Broadway performer, singer and civil-rights activist when her 1969 memoir “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” became an instant landmark in American literature. In raw but elegant prose, she described her birth in Missouri and her poverty-stricken, turbulent youth in segregated Arkansas. When she was still a child, she was raped by a family friend; her uncles beat the man to death.
She took her title from the refrain of a Paul Laurence Dunbar poem, “Sympathy,” composed while he worked at the Library of Congress in the late 1890s. Dunbar’s job was to retrieve reserved books that were kept behind iron grates, which were referred to as “cages.” The stacks became hot and oppressive during the summer months, and Dunbar’s poem captured their sense of being a prison enclosure.
In Angelou’s use, the title is a metaphor for the wide arches of racism and misogyny that shackle Black women as they struggle to live free, full lives. The book became a perennial classic. It’s still taught in schools.
She went on to pen more than 30 bestselling titles of poetry, essays and memoirs. Her popularity soared when she recited “On the Pulse of Morning” at Bill Clinton’s first presidential inauguration in 1993, becoming the first Black woman to write and present a poem for such an occasion. She was later awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2011. (Her autobiographical works are available in Braille through the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled.)
She died in 2014 at the age of 86.
U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-California, who co-introduced the bipartisan bill establishing the new coin program, said in a recent statement it was important to honor “these phenomenal women, who more often than not are overlooked in our country’s telling of history.”
“If you 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,’” said Lee.
Meanwhile, a 2020 Library of Congress exhibit noted that Otero-Warren’s militancy in the women’s suffrage movement was crucial in New Mexico, where she was tapped in 1917 by Alice Paul, a leading suffragist, to head the state chapter of the Congressional Union, forerunner of the National Woman’s Party.
Otero-Warren descended from wealthy and influential New Mexican settlers, but her family life was marked by violence: When she was still a toddler, a squatter shot her father to death. Still, her mother soon remarried and the family’s ranch prospered.
As an activist, she garnered support for a woman’s right to vote among Spanish- and English-speaking communities. Otero-Warren proved to be an ideal activist precisely because of her background. Her push for an inclusive environment and for bilingual materials helped widen the suffragists’ reach and attracted Latino support. She spearheaded efforts to have New Mexico ratify the19th Amendment in 1920.
She was an early supporter of bilingual education despite a federal English-only mandate then in place, serving as the first female school superintendent in Santa Fe County between 1918 and 1929. She promoted policies to empower rural Hispanic and Native American communities, according to biographers. In 1921, she was the first Latina to win the nomination for a Republican seat for the House of Representatives but lost the race by a razor thin margin in the general election.
Otero-Warren died in 1965, but her legacy is still alive in New Mexico. There’s a mural detailing her activism for suffrage in downtown Albuquerque, and there is a popular corrido, a narrative ballad, about her father’s murder. It resonates with people experiencing dispossession, said Nogar, the UNM professor.
From now through 2025, the mint will issue five new reverse designs each year, celebrating women’s accomplishments and contributions in fields like women’s suffrage, civil rights, abolition, government, humanities, science and the arts.
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