Your spare change jar is about to get queerer. As part of the United States Mint’s American Women Quarters Program, a quarter featuring astronaut and physicist Sally Ride (1951–2012) aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger will begin circulating this year, making Ride the first known LGBTQ+ person depicted on U.S. currency.
Ride may be in queer company. Two of the four other women added in this program potentially had relationships with women, and one woman on a dollar coin from the 1970s was also likely sapphic.
Ride made history in 1983 when she became the first American woman in space. After retiring from NASA in 1987, Ride became a professor of physics at the University of California San Diego. In 2001, along with her partner Tam O’Shaughnessy, she co-founded Sally Ride Science, an organization that has engaged students and educators in STEM through science fairs, an engineering design competition, dozens of books, and other activities.
Ride kept her personal life private during her lifetime. Her 2012 obituary quietly noted that she was survived by O’Shaughnessy, her partner of 27 years. In a 2021 interview with NPR, O’Shaughnessy described Ride as gay, but said that the labels Ride would have liked for herself would have been astronaut, role model, athlete, and—her favorite—physicist.
Historically, real-life women have been underrepresented on circulating U.S. currency, so the American Women Quarters Program, which will consist of five quarters each year from 2022 through 2025, is a positive step forward. LGBTQ+ representation has been non-existent, so this is a watershed moment for the community.
This year’s honorees are a diverse group of women representing a variety of professions: writer Maya Angelou (the first Black woman to be featured on U.S. currency), Cherokee Nation leader Wilma Mankiller, suffragist leader Nina Otero-Warren, and actress Anna May Wong (the first Chinese American woman to be featured on U.S. currency).
This set of honorees is also surprisingly (potentially) queer. According to the U.S. National Park Service, Otero-Warren (1881–1965) lived an “unconventional” life. She was divorced and never had children of her own, serving as a godmother to her nieces and nephews instead. And in the 1930s, she established a homestead called Los Dos (“The Two”) with a woman named Mamie Meadors—though it’s not known if the two women, who lived in separate houses, had an intimate relationship.
Wong (1905–1961) had close friendships with several women, including the openly bisexual Marlene Dietrich, which fueled rumors about her sexual orientation during her lifetime.
In 1979, prominent suffragist Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906) became the first real-life woman to appear on a circulating U.S. coin. Anthony, who never married, is considered by some historians as queer by today’s standards. In To Believe in Women: What Lesbians Have Done for America — A History, historian Lillian Faderman writes that Anthony had a long-term relationship with Emily Gross and referred to her as her lover. In 1896 Anthony said, “I’m sure no man could have made me any happier than I have been.”
The U.S. Mint began shipping quarters with Angelou’s likeness on January 10 and coins featuring the other honorees will begin shipping later this year. As these coins begin to find their way into our spare change and more are released in the years to come, we hope they inspire people of all ages to learn more about the lives and accomplishments of these women.