Stamp collectors, or "philatelists," are young and old, men and women. Choices of what to collect are endless, from collecting stamps from around the world, to a specific country or region, by topic -- animals, art, holidays, science, religion, historic monuments, trains, cars, children, the elderly, parks to zebras -- the collector decides. Many famous people collect stamps; perhaps the most famous was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who promoted the hobby while serving as president. To some collectors, it becomes the ultimate treasure hunt. Others enjoy collecting because they find the hobby fun, educational, creative, and intellectually stimulating. Still others collect as investment, while some turn their hobby to part or full-time businesses or employment.
While NWHM continues to pursue an accurate listing of all American women on stamps, this exhibit has traced the first seventy-five years, from 1893 to 1968. More than most years, 1968 was revolutionary, as numerous riots followed the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy that year. Changed attitudes on race led to images of African-American women on stamps during the next decade, with the first being the incomparable Harriet Tubman. More than any man of any race, she courageously risked her freedom in the 1850s by repeatedly returning to slave territory and leading others to liberty. Her stamp was issued in 1978; in 1985, Florida educator Mary McLeod Bethune was honored. Among many other achievements, Bethune was the world’s only woman of color at the founding conference of the United Nations.
There is an interesting correlation between women on stamps and progressive presidents. A chart of issuance by date and administration looks like this:
One key to making sense of the mess of history is to look for omissions. It is notable that less than a decade passed between the first two stamps honoring women, and the third was added a mere five years later. Then there was a very long dry spell, from 1907 to 1934 -- and how to account for that is an interesting question. The presidents during that time were Republicans William Howard Taft, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover; the sole Democrat was Woodrow Wilson, who served between 1913-1921. Those years marked the end of the Progressive Era, and women made genuine achievements during them, including winning the vote. Perhaps Progressive Era women simply were too busy making history to also prioritize recognizing history – but they might have been wise to have made more use of it as part of their PR package for their enfranchisement and other feminist goals.
The lack of any stamps honoring women during the 1920s and early 1930s is even more perplexing, given that women had won the vote and were in a position of political power. It probably is best explained by the era’s shift from political change to social change: the “flapper” of the “Roaring Twenties” lived very much in the present -- and despite the recentness of her emancipation, often seemed to feel that she owed nothing to those who had worked so hard for her freedom.
There is danger of that today, as many young women (and men) are unaware of how recently they lacked rights in education, employment, credit, and more. It is the mission of NWHM to create that awareness.
Exhibit written by NWHM interns Jessie Regunberg and Melissa Luthman and curated by NWHM Historical Consultant Doris Weatherford.
Special thanks to the American Philatelic Society for the use of the images in this exhibit.