People of America, start paying attention to your change.
A new quarter design, featuring a portrait of the legendary poet, writer, and activist Maya Angelou, went into circulation on Monday. Angelou is the first African American woman to appear on a quarter, and the first to be celebrated as part of the American Women Quarters Program, a four-year program that honors the accomplishments and contributions of prominent women throughout U.S. history.
Manufactured by the U.S. Mint, the bureau of the Department of the Treasury that produces and circulates our currency’s coins, the quarter shows a likeness of Angelou on the “tails” side of the coin. Her arms are uplifted against the backdrop of a bird in flight, its wings spread wide, and rays of the sun, inspired by her autobiography and most famous work I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, about growing up in the Jim Crow South.
Over the next several years, the Mint will issue quarters showcasing a diverse group of honorees. This year’s other trailblazers include Sally Ride, the first woman astronaut; Wilma Mankiller, the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation; Nina Otero-Warren, a leading suffragist in New Mexico; and Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American Hollywood film star. “Each 2022 quarter is designed to reflect the breadth and depth of accomplishments being celebrated throughout this historic coin program,” Mint deputy director Ventris C. Gibson said in a release yesterday. With the help of the National Women’s History Museum, the U.S. Mint invited the public to submit recommendations for potential honorees, with the requirement that the women must be deceased.
The Maya Angelou side of the coin was designed by Emily Damstra, an artist and illustrator who is also behind the design of the Anna May Wong coin; it was sculpted by Mint medallic artist Craig A. Campbell. The front of the coin features George Washington, who has been the face of the 25-cent piece since 1932, in celebration of the first president’s bicentennial birthday. (Prior to Washington, the quarter bore different iterations of “Liberty”—a right-facing bust from 1796 until 1916, replaced by a standing Liberty until 1930.) The front of the Angelou quarter and its American Women Quarters’ successors still feature a likeness of Washington, but this one was designed by Laura Gardin Fraser, one of the most prolific female sculptors of the early 20th century. In fact, Fraser’s was the recommended design from the 1932 bicentennial-quarter competition, but then-Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon vetoed it for the (now familiar) left-facing Washington profile by renowned sculptor and medallic artist John Flanagan. It seems only fitting, then, that the design of a distinguished woman artist is being revived for this series of celebrated American women.
Women have appeared on U.S. coins before, but they were few and far between. As part of the 50 State Quarters Program, Helen Keller adorned the 2003 Alabama state quarter, and the 2004 Iowa state quarter featured an image of a female teacher. Susan B. Anthony, whose suffrage work paved the way for the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote, appeared on a silver dollar back in 1979, and early Native American Sacagawea was celebrated on a golden dollar coin produced from 2000 to 2008.
Maya Angelou’s and the additional new quarters were authorized by the Circulating Collectible Coin Redesign Act of 2020, which passed in January 2021 and allows the Department of the Treasury and the U.S. Mint to issue new quarter-dollar coins. The coins featuring the next honorees will start shipping later this year. Next up is Sally Ride’s coin, dropping in February, followed by Mankiller’s quarter in the spring.