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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

We the People: Telling her ‘tail’ — the United States Mint’s American Women Quarters initiative now features underrecognized feminist Nina Otero-Warren

 (Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)
By Molly Wisor The Spokesman-Review

Each week, The Spokesman-Review examines one question from the Naturalization Test immigrants must pass to become United States citizens.

Today’s question: Name one power that is only for the federal government.

Coins originally were designed for finance, but the art on a coin often says more about the country responsible for its creation. Chris Costello, coin collector and artistic designer for the U.S. mint, embraces this often overlooked side of coins.

“As those pieces are distributed to the public, they tell the American story – our history, our culture, our people, our innovators,” Costello said. “Every nation that issues coinage is really telling a bit of history about their nation and who they’re about and what they’re all about.”

Minting coins is one of the Constitutional powers that the Founding Fathers left to the federal government rather than the states – along with printing paper money, declaring war, creating an army, making treaties and setting foreign policy.

“The founding fathers thought that it would be wise to have certain powers that represented our united front,” Lewis and Clark High School’s legal studies teacher Dave Jackson said. “We could’ve ended up with a Michigan dollar, or an Alabama dollar, but traveling is important, moving is important, and commerce is important.”

According to Jackson, some of the early coins in the US were meant to reflect themes in the founding documents, like the Declaration of Independence.

“Liberty was a very common theme,” he said. “Lady Liberty was represented on most of the old coins in the United States.”

A real woman wasn’t featured on an American coin until the minting of the Susan B. Anthony Dollar in 1979. But starting this year and ending in 2025, the United States mint is rolling out the American Women Quarters program, meant to celebrate American women and their contributions to the country.

The obverse, or ‘heads’ side of the coins, will feature a profile of George Washington designed by Laura Gardin Frasier in 1932, the 200th anniversary of Washington’s birth. Frasier became the first female artist to design a commemorative coin, the 1921 Alabama Centennial Half Dollar.

The reverse, or ‘tails’ side of the coins, feature prominent women such as astronaut Sally Ride, poet Maya Angelou and a coin designed by Costello in honor of the New Mexico suffragist Nina Otero-Warren.

Otero-Warren was bilingual and the first female superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools. She worked in both the suffragist and educational fields to include both Spanish and English speakers alike.

Born to two descendants of Spanish colonists in New Mexico in 1881, Otero-Warren was raised by her mother and her stepfather in the upper echelons of Santa Fe society. After divorcing her husband Rawson Warren in 1910, Otero-Warren kept his last name and moved to New York to take care of her younger stepbrother’s house while he studied at Columbia University.

“She was unusual in that she travelled, and she had that experience, especially for New Mexican women who tended not to travel,” said Gonzaga History Professor Deena Gonzalez.

While living in New York, Otero-Warren became involved in the suffragist cause after volunteering in a settlement house, where she helped immigrant women settle into American society. Otero-Warren moved back to New Mexico after two years to take care of the family house after her mother died.

“I think that kind of broadened her perspective, and made her the advocate that she became,” said Gonzalez.

Otero-Warren  (Bain News Collection, Library of Congress)
Otero-Warren (Bain News Collection, Library of Congress)

Back home in New Mexico, Otero-Warren spearheaded the suffragist cause in the region.

Her efforts to broaden the movement by teaching in both Spanish and English helped induct an important population of American women into the cause.

The minting of the Otero-Warren coin is an important step in diversifying the history of the suffragist movement, Gonzalez said.

“It is about time to recognize how much a part of a nation these Hispanic women were,” she said.

When Costello answered a call to design the Nina Otero-Warren coin, he wanted to include details relevant to Otero-Warren’s history. His final design includes the Yucca flower, New Mexico’s state flower, and the Spanish phrase “Voto para la Mujer,” meaning “Votes for Women”.

“It’s our responsibility to really bring the whole picture into one small, iconic image that really communicates as best as possible everything that the viewer or the holder of the coin needs to know about that particular subject,” Costello said.

Costello has worked for the mint since his hire under the Artistic Infusion Program in 2010. He competed against fellow artists at the mint to design the American Women Quarters.

After learning more about and compiling existing images of Otero-Warren, Costello was able to create a design that he said stood out for the American Women Quarters. He used a compilation of existing photos and research into Otero-Warren’s life to guide his design process.

“She overcame a lot of obstacles,” he said. “I wanted to display that in her eyes and in the drawing that I presented for sculpting as best as I could – a confident, determined woman that has a lot to be proud of.”