Women Sovereigns, Goddesses and Activists on Coins: A Brief History
Maya Angelou fought alongside civil rights activist Martin Luther King for equal rights for black people in the United States. Today a quarter dollar coin was minted in honor of the American who died in 2014, making her the first African American woman to receive such a tribute. The coin is the first in a special series of mintages – the American Women Quarters Program – of 20 performances honoring women’s achievements that will be completed by the US Mint by 2025.
The image in the piece references activist, poet and author Angelou’s 1969 autobiographical book, “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings,” in which she recounts her life growing up in the United States during segregation. There are a host of milestones in the series: astronaut Sally Ride is the first lesbian woman to be portrayed on American money; civil rights activist Nina Otero-Warren is the first Hispanic woman; so was Wilma Mankiller, the first female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation.
Women depicted on coins for 2,500 years
The decision to depict minorities on the 25-cent coins shows that the United States “has developed an awareness of the diversity of society, for which America can only be commended”, says Bernhard Weisser of the Numismatic Collection of the National Museums of Berlin. That minorities like Maya Angelou are represented on coins is a historical novelty, he adds.
Historically, coins have been used by leaders to transmit their “ideals and virtues to users, that is to say their population and their soldiers”, underlines the expert. Female figures on coins, on the other hand, have been around since minting. From ancient goddesses to Renaissance rulers to modern-day leaders, many female figures have been immortalized on coins.
But the oldest known coins depicting real people looked like a man. “From 525 BC. BC, the king of Persia was depicted on coins,” says Weisser. Yet women were also involved in the image from the start. “In preparation for the first performance of a female leader, we are heading to Africa,” says Weisser. One of the first women of historical prominence to be immortalized by coinage was the Ptolemaic queen Arsinoe II of Egypt in the 3rd century BC.
Coins minted as a symbol of power
Since then, women have been depicted on many national coins, either during their lifetime or posthumously. The female figures depicted in silver have, to this day, been primarily female political leaders: from Cleopatra VII (69-30 BC) to Queen Naganika, who was one of the first women from the history of India to directing the affairs of a state in the 1st century BC, to the Empress of the Holy Roman Empire Maria Theresa (1717-1780) – all issued coins to their effigy. The latter “created a thaler that enjoyed great popularity in Africa,” Weisser said. “This thaler was reissued in Vienna until the 20th century.”
Female rulers, like their male counterparts, wanted to use their images on coins to legitimize their rule and assert their influence over nations and empires. Probably the best-known example is the portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, which still appears on many Commonwealth coins today.
Goddesses on coins
But not only real women had their faces stamped on the coins of their empires. Ancient empires, such as Greece or the Kushans in Central Asia, were the first to depict female deities on their coins. As Greek rulers sought to portray the goddess Athena in various poses, the Kushans imprinted the goddesses Lakshmi and Ardochsho on their coins. In India, the goddess Lakshmi has long been the most frequently depicted deity on coins. Goddesses are rarely found on coins today, but other female figures that serve as allegorical personifications appear – think of the French Marianne, the Peruvian Madre Patria, and Lady Liberty in the United States.
Strong women on modern currency
Since the 20th century, there has been a trend to recognize women for their contribution to society. Examples include the popular former first lady of Argentina, Eva Peron (1919-1952), whose portrait is still in circulation today on a special peso coin, and former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (1917- 1984). Both were depicted posthumously on national coins. These coins were meant to commemorate women’s political leadership roles and cement their place in their country’s history.
In recent years, however, governments have also begun to recognize women beyond the political sphere. Lady Diana, Princess of Wales had a range of pieces dedicated to her. More and more women are also being recognized for their contributions to the arts and sciences. Moreover, as in the case of Maya Angelou, states are increasingly recognizing the role of women activists, reflecting changes in society. “More recently, the women who received a tribute on the coinage were, for example, active in the charitable sector or were involved in raising children. But these were rather one-sided representations of women – this is gradually changing” , explains Weisser. .
Thus, the new series of American Women Quarters Program coins is in tune with the times. However, the women artists, activists and scientists represented there must always share the room with a man. On the “face” of the coin, the first president of the United States George Washington (1732-1799) is always represented.