Learn more about the first five honorees of this newly launched currency initiative.

By Melissa Farthing, Copy Editor

Most coins in the average American’s wallet contain the same familiar imagery; busts of early presidents and the occasional state design on the back. However, Americans may have recently exchanged quarters with a surprising fresh face: a Black woman. 

This historical change in currency is thanks to a new program launched by the United States Mint: the American Woman Quarters Program. According to the U.S. Mint’s website, this program “celebrates the accomplishments and contributions made by women to the development and history of [the United States].” These women have found success in a wide range of career fields and hail from diverse backgrounds.

In mid-2021, the first five honorees of the American Women Quarters Program were announced. They are Maya Angelou, Dr. Sally Ride, Wilma Mankiller, Nina Otero-Warren and Anna May Wong. More honorees will be announced each year the program is active, bringing the total number of women inducted to twenty. Maya Angelou is featured on the first-released quarter which made its debut on Jan. 10. Four more coins featuring the remaining honorees will roll out throughout the rest of 2022. 

Here are a few things to know about these influential women.

Maya Angelou (1928-2014)

Maya Angelou was an accomplished writer who published seven autobiographies; her most well-known memoir is I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969. She was also a prolific poet, and her works have been recited at many important events, such as the 1993 presidential inauguration of Bill Clinton. Angelou had a handful of endeavors in the film industry. She wrote the screenplay for “Georgia, Georgia,” a 1972 Swedish-American film. “Georgia, Georgia is believed to be the first produced film with a screenplay written by a Black woman. In addition to landing on U.S. currency, Angelou’s expansive list of awards and honors includes the National Medal of Arts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 

Dr. Sally Ride (1951-2012)

Dr. Sally Ride is best known as the first American woman to travel into outer space; she is also the first LGBTQ+ space traveler. A physicist and astronaut, Ride applied to NASA’s Astronaut Group 8 in 1978 after seeing a newspaper ad. Out of 8000 applicants, she was one of 35 people and one of six women chosen for the program, according to NASA. After departing from NASA in 1983, Ride taught physics at the University of California, San Diego, and she served as the director of the California Space Institute. Alongside her career, Ride engaged in public-outreach programs and wrote several children’s books about space.

Wilma Mankiller (1945-2010)

Wilma Mankiller was an activist who became the first woman principal chief of the Cherokee Nation in 1985. She lived in Tahlequah, OK until the Indian Relocation Act of 1956 forced her family to move to San Francisco. Mankiller was inspired to become a social activist when the federal penitentiary on Alcatraz Island was invaded by a group of American Indians. Her first leadership role was as the director of the Native American Youth Center in Oakland, CA. Years later, she was elected as the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, a position she fulfilled for ten years. Mankiller was inducted into the Women’s History Museum in 1993, and she was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Bill Clinton in 1998.

Nina Otero-Warren (1881-1965)

Nina Otero-Warren served as a government official for New Mexico in the early 20th century, one of the first females in the state to do so. She was an advocate for quality education in her state, especially for Hispanos (an ethnic group from New Mexico), Native Americans and rural-area students. In 1922, she ran for a Republican seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Although she did not secure the seat, she was the first Latina to run for Congress. Otero-Warren was also involved in women’s suffrage efforts, particularly those taking place in her home state of New Mexico. Later in life, she began a real-estate business that lasted up until her death at age 83. 

Anna May Wong (1905-1961)

Anna May Wong was a Chinese-American actress, the first one in Hollywood. Born in Los Angeles during the earlier stages of the film industry, Wong acted in over sixty films, including some of the first films in color. Her first credited film was Bits of Life, released in 1921. Wong decided to move to Europe in 1928 after becoming frustrated with American film customs surrounding race and ethnicity; at the time, many Asian characters were played by white actors, and Wong was denied many acting roles because of this practice. In Europe, her popularity skyrocketed, and she soon became an international star. Wong continued acting until her death in 1961; the year before, she was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

While much more can be said about these heroic women, the summaries above are short reminders of the influential work they have completed during their lifetimes. When women of all ages hold coins from the American Women Quarters Program in their hands, perhaps they will be inspired to make this country a better place for the next generation of fearless females.