As we approach the end of commemorating Hispanic Heritage Month, I am proud to look back on my time in the federal government as Treasurer of the United States and the role that my position has played in advocating for women and the Hispanic community. When I was first asked to be part of President Obama’s U.S. Department of the Treasury and Federal Reserve Transition Team—in fall 2008 during the height of the financial crisis—I never would have imagined how my life would turn out. It was during this time, when I was conducting the due diligence to prepare for the day President Obama would assume office in January 2009, that I came across the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP).
The BEP is the part of U.S. Treasury that designs and produces almost every financial product in the federal government since 1862. Most people would know it as the place that makes our paper currency, but in the past, it also produced savings bonds, postage stamps, military payment certificates, and food stamps, and it still produces the security page of your passport. For me, it was a window into our nation’s history. While poring through decades of vignettes and renderings of these products, I realized that real women were missing. Women whose ideas, efforts, and sacrifices have contributed to the fabric of America’s rich history.
At that moment, I made a decision to accept the U.S. Treasury position and move my family across the country from California to D.C. My new mission was clear: chart a course to redesign the U.S. currency to institutionalize a much more accurate representation of our country’s history.
The Treasurer of the United States has been a woman since 1949. Apparently, President Truman was the first to declare that it would be symbolic to place a woman on our U.S. currency alongside the Secretary of the Treasury who to this day has always been a man. And prior to my appointment, there have been five other Latinas. Unfortunately, the position had become largely ceremonial. My goal was to change that, and thanks to the Transition Leads along with Secretary Tim Geithner, I was given the support to redefine the position.
My responsibilities included direct oversight over BEP and the U.S. Mint (including Fort Knox), and to act as a senior advisor to Secretary Geithner on issues of community development and public engagement. At my request, I was also appointed Chair of the Advanced Counterfeit Deterrence Steering Committee, which is responsible for making recommendations about currency design. With almost 4,000 employees and a strategic plan in place, Secretary Geithner approved the concept of placing a woman on the front of our nation’s currency for the first time in our history—now scheduled to be unveiled in 2020 in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment, which granted women the right to vote.
But I felt it was important to neither end our efforts at that point nor discontinue the national conversation we had started. It’s not about highlighting one particular woman, it is more important to honor the unsung heroes who happen to be women. This is a conversation that goes beyond currency design. Therefore, using in large part the feedback that American citizens provided via social media, roundtables, and town halls, I created a database of women who might be pictured on the new currency—making sure to also be transparent and post information on the U.S. Treasury’s website. I felt strongly that we should share these efforts in the spirit of democracy, which coincidentally is the theme for this new generation of currency.
Today, my passion to shine a spotlight on women who have fought and are still fighting to have a seat at the table—and whose inspiring accomplishments are also the reason to help ensure my daughter continues to pursue her dreams. And, it is the key driver that led me to decide to leave my job in July to launch a special initiative on Equality Day 2016 called Teachers Righting History.
Teachers Righting History uses the database from our currency public engagement process and provides content for teachers and students to recognize the contributions that women have made to the history of this great country. It is not HIStory or HERstory. It is OUR story. The response has been overwhelming from both girls AND boys. This has all happened mostly by word of mouth from students and teachers who are so excited to uncover what I refer to as “buried treasures”—women who have been, for the most part, written out of our mainstream history.
Just like our currency, we value what we see every day. If you can see it, you can be it, and if we just change our lens to recognize what is missing, we can start filling in the gaps. This holds true for other areas where women are sorely underrepresented whether it’s in Congress, in the C-Suite, or on corporate boards, as Catalyst so vehemently advocates. For me, this is just the beginning of so many structural changes on the horizon.
Rosie Rios was the 43rd Treasurer of the United States and is most recently known for initiating and leading the historic efforts to place a woman on U.S. currency for the first time in over a century. Treasurer Rios has accepted a position as a Visiting Scholar at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and continues advocating for women and girls as she prepares to launch her Empowerment 2020 foundation and has already unveiled its first initiative, Teachers Righting History, www.teachersrightinghistory.org.