This virtual exhibit is the first in a series of four focusing on the accomplishments of women featured on stamps. In "Women on Stamps Part 1", we acknowledge the efforts of pioneering women and early government leaders who entered previously unexplored territories - from the frontier to the Senate floor. In each place they left behind an indelible mark.
- Women’s Stamp on History
- Famous First Ladies
- Martha Washington
- Abigail Adams and Dolley Madison
- Forming the Nation: Pioneering Women
- Native American Leaders: Pocahontas and Sacagawea
- Betsy Ross
- Revolutionary Fighters: Molly Pitcher and Sybil Ludington
- Nellie Cashman
- Fighting for Equality: Sojourner Truth
- Fighting for Equality: Harriet Tubman
- Ida B. Wells-Barnett
- The Women's Rights Movement
- Susan B. Anthony
- Lucy Stone and Alice Paul: Leading Change
- The 19th Amendment
- Eleanor Roosevelt
- Political Firsts: Belva Ann Lockwood
- Entering Congress: Hattie Caraway and Margaret Chase Smith
- Advising the President and Representing the Nation
- For More Information
Women’s Stamp on History
Stamps provide an opportunity to learn about the nation’s past, each stamp commemorating important events and people in our history. Beginning with the first image of a woman on a stamp in 1893, the United States has issued hundreds of postage stamps honoring the accomplishments and achievements of women in America.
Many women have left their ‘stamp’ on history. This exhibit is the first in a series focusing on the accomplishments of women featured on stamps. In Women on Stamps: Part 1, we acknowledge the efforts of pioneering women and early government leaders who entered previously unexplored territories - from the frontier to the Senate floor. In each place they left behind an indelible mark.
The actions of women such as Martha Washington, Sacajawea, Sojourner Truth and Susan B. Anthony provided a foundation upon which others could build. Despite challenges, the achievements of these women influenced later generations, empowering them to effect change. Their triumphs allow all Americans today the opportunity to exercise their rights and achieve their dreams.
Image: Queen Isabella I was the first woman to appear on a U.S. postage stamp in 1893.
Famous First Ladies
Some of the most recognizable women in early America were the First Ladies. The First Lady, the president’s wife, is the unofficial title of the hostess of the White House. Although it is generally an honorary position, the First Lady is an important national symbol acting as hostess for the country. The position has continued to develop to include a variety of important activities.
In the early history of the nation there was no specific title for the wife of the President. Each woman chose her own manner of address, such as “Lady” or “Mrs. President.”
The women commemorated on these stamps represent some of the most revered and beloved First Ladies. These three women - Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Dolly Madison - helped define the role of First Lady for their successors. Martha Washington was the first American woman to be memorialized on a stamp in 1902, honoring her role as the first First Lady and “mother of the nation.”
The 1.5-cent Martha Washington stamp was part of the 1938 Presidential Series - the only woman pictured and one of only three non-presidential stamps in the series.
Martha Custis (1731-1802) married George Washington on January 6, 1759. Although a private person, she bravely followed her husband to war and the Presidency. During the Revolutionary War Martha was instrumental in maintaining troop morale, even spending the hard winter in Valley Forge with her husband. She helped organize supplies, rolled bandages, and led women in their work around camp.
Martha and George Washington entertained lavishly at their Mount Vernon estate, hosting over 2,000 guests in seven years. When Washington was elected as the first president of the newly formed United States, Martha accompanied him to his post. As the first hostess for the nation, her welcoming nature helped others view the presidential couple not as royalty but just like other Americans. Her warm hospitality set the standard for future First Ladies as a generous hostess and public figure.
The 8-cent Martha Washington stamp, issued in 1902, was the first stamp issue featuring an American woman.
Abigail Adams (1744-1818) and Dolley Madison (1768-1849) helped expand the role of First Lady to a leader and representative of the nation. Each woman demonstrated great courage in support of the new nation and inspired others, helping to define roles for women in the new country. They also showed great understanding of the nuanced role of the first lady, developing the role into a representation of the enduring sprit of the nation.
Abigail Adams was an ardent patriot and devoted wife of President John Adams. She supported his career in law and his passion for the American patriotic cause. She remained home to care for their children as he served in the Continental Congress and as a diplomat. When her husband was elected president, they were the first residents of the White House in Washington, D.C. The couple took great pride in the political career of their son, John Quincy Adams, although Abigail died in 1818 before he became President.
Dolley Madison’s courage and charisma represent hallmarks of a First Lady. She accompanied her husband, James Madison, to Washington, D.C., when he served as Secretary of State under President Jefferson. Her political knowledge and social skills greatly assisted Jefferson and he asked her to serve as his official hostess in the White House. Dolley continued as hostess when Madison became President. When the British invaded Washington, D.C., in 1814, Dolley stayed until the last moment to secure as many government documents as possible, including saving the famous Gilbert Stewart portrait of George Washington. When she returned to the burned capital, Dolley continued her role as the immaculate social leader as they rebuilt the city.
Forming the Nation: Pioneering Women
While the early First Ladies embodied the enduring spirit of a new nation, legends developed that honored other women who helped form America. These legends represent glorified views of the challenges settlers faced in the New World. The following stamps honor the strength and fortitude shared by America’s pioneering women.
One such female, Virginia Dare (1587-?), is honored for being the first child born of English parents in the New World. She was born in 1587 on the settlement of Roanoke Island in present-day North Carolina. Nothing else is known of her life, or of the rest of the settlement’s members. When English sailors returned to the site, the “Lost Colony” had vanished.
The United States postage stamp honoring Virginia Dare idealizes the hardships colonists faced on the frontier. The strength and fortitude of these pioneering women are a tribute to the American spirit.
Native American Leaders: Pocahontas and Sacagawea
Two Native American women have been honored on U.S. postage stamps for their efforts to protect settlers and improve relations between Europeans and Native Americans. Over time, their lives have become the subject of legends and offer them a place of honor in American history.
The story of Pocahontas (c. 1595-1617) remains one of the most popular legends in American history. The daughter of a Powhatan chieftain, Pocahontas was friendly with the nearby English settlers in Jamestown. She frequently delivered food to the English and worked as an emissary between the groups. She is most famously known for the legendary tale in which she saved John Smith’s life after his capture by members of her tribe, protecting him with her body and begging for his life to be spared. Pocahontas later married tobacco planter John Rolfe and joined him in England.
Native American Leaders: Pocahontas and Sacagawea
Sacajawea (c.1787-1812) became one of the most well-known women of the American West through her partnership with Lewis and Clark. In 1800 she was captured by the rival Minnetree tribe and became the wife of Toussaint Charbonneau, a French Canadian trapper. Charbonneau joined the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1803-1806), exploring a route to the Pacific. As a young Shoshone woman with a child, Sacagawea helped ensure native populations that the group of explorers had peaceful intentions. She aided them with her knowledge of the land and local foods and herbs. Her strength and heroism continuously aided the group. In his journal, Clark attributed much of the mission’s success to her.
Many women have been honored for their legendary patriotism. Women such as Betsy Ross (1752-1836) symbolize women’s contribution to the American Revolution and founding of the new nation.
In 1870, Betsy Ross’ grandson told the Pennsylvania Historical Society an important story his grandmother had told him. Betsy, a well-known seamstress in Philadelphia, claimed that General George Washington and two congressional representatives visited her in June 1776. They asked her to make a flag based on their drawings. Betsy agreed, although she recommended a five-point star as opposed to the six-point stars on the sketch. Although this story has no factual record, the flag Betsy made continues to be one of the most beloved versions of the American flag.
Betsy was an ardent patriot during the Revolution and her story represents the many people that rose to the cause and used their skills in support of their country.
The story of this event was commemorated in Charles H. Weisgerber’s painting Birth of Our Nation’s Flag, first exhibited at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The success of this painting greatly increased interest in the American Flag House and the Betsy Ross Memorial Association. The image serves as the basis for the 3-cent Betsy Ross stamp.
Revolutionary Fighters: Molly Pitcher and Sybil Ludington
During the American Revolution, many women took an active role in the American cause, supporting the effort by boycotting English goods and organizing supplies for troops. As men left to fight, women took charge of the home during their absence. Some women followed the troops to battle, where they provided food, laundry and medical care to soldiers.
The United States honored two women, Molly Pitcher (c. 1754-1832) and Sybil Ludington (1761-1839), on postage stamps for their contributions during the American Revolution. These women represent the patriotism and dedication of many women as they rose to create a new nation.
Mary Ludwig followed her husband, William Hayes, when he enlisted in the Revolutionary army. Ludwig earned her nickname Molly Pitcher by bringing pitchers of water to soldiers in battle. On June 28, 1778, William Hayes participated in the Battle of Monmouth, the longest battle of the war. When he was unable to continue firing his cannon, Mary stepped in and manned the gun through the battle. Although the story is questioned by some, the tale of Molly Pitcher continues to live on as a tribute to the many Revolutionary women who helped form the new nation.
Revolutionary Fighter: Sybil Ludington
Sybil Ludington was 16 years old when a messenger entered the Ludington house in Patterson, New York, on April 26, 1777. He reported that the British troops had landed in Long Island Sound, and intended to destroy the militia’s supply center in Danbury, Connecticut. Colonel Ludington was unable to leave his station, so Sybil volunteered to make the ride to inform the militia of the impending attack. She rode through the night spreading the alarm, alerting the troops in time for them to fight the British. George Washington and Alexander Hamilton noticed the heroics of the “Female Paul Revere.”
Those who moved with the westward expansion faced many challenges as they settled and created homes. In 1994 the U.S. Postal Service created the Legends of the West Issue, honoring those who made the West their home.
Nellie Cashman (ca. 1850-1925) - “The Angel of Tombstone” - embodied the adventurous spirit of the West. She emigrated to the U.S. from Ireland in the 1860s and moved West. She earned an honest reputation managing her boarding house in Nevada. When a scurvy epidemic broke out in British Columbia, she organized men to carry supplies through the deep snow to the sick, and nursed them back to health. Afterwards, Nellie moved to Tombstone, Arizona, where she opened the first female-owned business. She was a prominent citizen, promoting social welfare and the arts. When Nellie died, newspapers across the country recognized her good works.
Fighting for Equality: Sojourner Truth
Two inspirational women - Isabella Bomfree (“Sojourner Truth”) (1797-1883) and Harriet Tubman (1820-1913) - represent the efforts of innumerable others in the quest to free the enslaved and promote racial equality. Both women dedicated their lives to ensure that all people receive the same basic rights and freedoms, regardless of their race, ethnicity, or gender. The United States commemorated their efforts with the issue of several postage stamps.
Isabella Bomfree was born about 1797, a slave in New York. In 1826, her son’s owner sold the child into slavery in Alabama. Isabella sued for his return and won the case. She received her freedom in 1828 and soon after had a religious conversion. She changed her name to Sojourner Truth and began to preach and travel. She became involved in a group that supported abolition of slavery and the advancement of women. She helped freed slaves find jobs, taught them homemaking skills, and petitioned Congress to give land to former slaves. Although she was unable to read and write, she dictated her autobiography The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave. She continued to dedicate her life to preaching, promoting women, and helping former slaves start their new lives.
Sojourner Truth was a prolific speaker whose messages helped empower women and facilitate change. Her most famous speech “Ain’t I a Woman” promoted her goal of including black women in the women’s rights movement. The Sojourner Truth stamp was issued in 1986.
Fighting for Equality: Harriet Tubman
Harriet Tubman worked tirelessly to help others create a new life. Born a slave, she escaped to freedom in 1849. Harriet soon returned south to assist her family to freedom, thereby beginning a career as a “conductor” of the Underground Railroad. Known as “the Moses of her people,” she helped over 300 slaves escape to freedom to Canada through the network of routes and safe houses. During the Civil War she assisted the Union Army as a spy, scout and nurse. Her good works continued throughout her life. In her eighties Harriet contributed money to found a home to care for aging African Americans.
Harriet Tubman was the first African American woman to be honored on a U.S. postage stamp. The 13-cent stamp was the first in the Black Heritage series, initiated in 1978.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett
Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) continued the legacy of Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, dedicating her life to teaching others of the injustices facing women and African Americans. In 1884 Ida refused to move to the segregated car on a train and was forced off the car. Infuriated, she sued and won, but the case was overturned.
Ida began writing about her own experiences and those of others. She launched a crusade against lynching, Jim Crow laws, unequal education and actively promoted suffrage for women. Although she received numerous threats for her views, Ida refused to stop. She helped form the National Association of Colored Women and campaigned for voting rights for African American women. She was also a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Ida’s work spread awareness of discrimination and promoted equal opportunities for all.
The Women's Rights Movement
The Women’s Rights Movement emerged alongside the fight for abolition. Many of the early leaders in the movement worked to promote both causes. Together these women worked to ensure equal rights in areas such as suffrage, employment, education, property ownership and child custody.
Women such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), Lucretia Mott (1793-1880) and Carrie Catt (1859-1947) were dedicated abolitionists who helped begin the Women’s Rights Movement. In 1848, Stanton and Mott organized the first woman’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, beginning the first steps to ensuring an equal place for women in America. Catt continued their work in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as the president of the National American Women Suffrage Association. The activists who fought to guarantee these natural rights at times faced strong opposition, yet the movement continued to grow and achieve new goals. The passage of the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote was a milestone in women’s rights. The movement again experienced an increased momentum in the 1960s as women secured government protection in areas such as employment. Grassroots support and the dedicated work of many national women’s rights groups continue to promote gender equality in the United States and abroad.
The Progress of Women stamp was issued on the centennial year of the Seneca Falls Convention. The convention was a pinnacle moment in the early years of the women’s rights movement in America. The 1848 convention brought together female activists to discuss the legal limitations of women’s rights, proclaiming that all men and women were equal.
Susan B. Anthony
Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906) was a key player in the Women’s Rights Movement. Her 50-year collaboration with Elizabeth Cady Stanton helped advance rights for all women. Susan began her work with the Daughters of Temperance in 1849, having witnessed the abuse suffered by women and children from alcoholic men. She helped found the Woman’s State Temperance Society of New York and the National Woman Suffrage Association. Anthony appeared before every Congress between 1869 and 1906, and petitioned for a constitutional amendment to allow women the same rights as men. She continued to fight for her beliefs, leading women to the polls, being arrested, and continuing to speak out before her trial. Although she never lived to see the 19th Amendment pass in 1920, Susan’s dedicated work for gender equality helped make her dream possible.
Lucy Stone and Alice Paul: Leading Change
Many female leaders emerged in the Women’s Rights Movement, helping promote change. Women such as Lucy Stone (1818-1893) and Alice Paul (1885-1977) faced criticism and persecution while inspiring others in their quest for equal rights.
When Lucy Stone was young, she disagreed with her father that men should dominate women and became one of the earliest advocates of women’s rights in America. She put herself through school, becoming the first woman in Massachusetts to hold a college degree. She kept her own name after marriage - a practice unheard of at the time. Lucy also maintained property in her own name and refused to pay taxes on it, claiming “taxation without representation.” Lucy helped create the National American Woman Suffrage Association. She also was a staunch abolitionist and worked for the American Anti-Slavery Society.
Lucy Stone and Alice Paul: Leading Change
Alice Paul was instrumental in designing the campaign for suffrage. She learned civil disobedience from British suffrage leaders and applied these ideas in the U.S. On March 3, 1913, Alice organized the largest parade America had ever seen. Over 8,000 women marched through Washington D.C., receiving abuse from onlookers and little help from police. She founded the National Woman’s Party and with their help, picketed outside the White House for the next seven years. After achieving her goal with the passage of the 19th Amendment, Alice continued to work to protect women from discrimination and promote equal rights.
The 19th Amendment
The women honored on U.S. postage stamps represent some of the many women who worked to gain universal suffrage. Women’s rights advocates viewed suffrage as a principal right for women as citizens of the nation. Women began slowly expanding and exercising their legal rights, participating in government and protesting for change. They continued to redefine their role in society, expanding their power. On August 18, 1920 the 19th Amendment was passed, declaring “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any other State on account of sex.”
The United States Postal Service has commemorated the passage of the 19th Amendment three times on postage stamps, more than any other amendment. The images chosen depict the struggle for suffrage and the dream realized as women exercised their right to vote. The historic importance of the 19th Amendment as a cornerstone for promoting equality and women’s rights cannot be undervalued.
This stamp marked the 50th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, issued on August 26, 1970.
Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) demonstrated how women could redefine traditional roles and create a new place in American culture. Eleanor created a long legacy that extended far beyond her years as First Lady. She redefined the role of a First Lady, becoming an activist and world leader in her own right. Her works have inspired subsequent First Ladies, and other women, to seek their own political and social causes and enact change.
During World War I Eleanor worked for several organizations that assisted service personnel and joined the League of Women Voters. She supported her husband, Franklin D. Roosevelt, in his political career, becoming active in the Women’s Division of the State Democratic Committee.
During her time as First Lady, Eleanor entertained, gave lectures, held press conferences, traveled, and represented her husband in official and unofficial business. She helped develop several New Deal programs, supported troops, and worked to improve race relations. When her husband died after twelve years in office, Eleanor continued to work for her nation as a United Nations representative, chairing the U.N. Human Rights Commission.
Political Firsts: Belva Ann Lockwood
At the turn of the twentieth century women became national leaders entering previously male-dominated positions of power, becoming mayors, Congresswomen, cabinet members, and advisors. The United States Postal Service has honored women such as Belva Ann Lockwood for their political achievements. The following stamps explore women’s contributions in law making, Congress, the Presidential Cabinet and the Foreign Service.
Belva Ann Lockwood (1830-1917) was a trailblazer for securing the legal rights of women, opening the door for many women to enter politics. She strongly advocated women’s rights and drafted a bill in 1872 for equal rights for female civil service employees. When the bill became law, Lockwood was inspired to get her law degree, becoming one of the first women to earn a law degree, in 1872. She drafted legislation for Congress providing equal pay for equal work for female government employees and for women to be allowed to practice before the Supreme Court. She then became the first woman to do so. Lockwood wrote amendments to the statehood bills of Arizona, New Mexico and Oklahoma to allow women the right to vote. Lockwood was also the first woman to run for the presidency, under the National Equal Rights Party in 1884 and 1888.
Entering Congress: Hattie Caraway and Margaret Chase Smith
Hattie Caraway (1878-1950) and Margaret Chase Smith (1897-1995) were successful Congresswomen who created a place in history. In their roles as congresswomen, they championed many important issues. Each woman dedicated her work to improving the lives of others and the nation.
Hattie W. Caraway was a woman of many ‘firsts.’ When her husband, Thaddeus Caraway, died while serving as a congressional senator in 1932, Hattie stepped in to fill his seat. She was subsequently re-elected for two terms, becoming the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate. Hattie took her responsibilities seriously and encouraged New Deal legislation and prohibition. She became the first woman to chair a Senate committee (the Committee on Enrolled Bills) in 1933. She introduced an early version of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1943. When Hattie left her post as senator, she exited to a standing ovation on the Senate floor.
Entering Congress: Hattie Caraway and Margaret Chase Smith
Margaret Chase Smith was one of the most politically successful women of the 20th century. She married Maine political leader Clyde H. Smith and filled his seat in the House of Representatives after he passed away. During World War II she served on the House Naval Affairs Committee and helped achieve permanent status for women in the military. After eight years in Congress, Margaret was elected to the Senate, becoming the first woman in history to serve in both houses. During this time she openly opposed Senator Joseph McCarthy’s campaign to identify Communists. In 1964 she became the first woman to be nominated for presidency at a major party convention.
Advising the President and Representing the Nation
As women have expanded their power and ability to enact change, they have redefined their places in political office. They have served in the Presidential Cabinet, where each member promotes the interests of a specific issue or sector of government. Women have been promoted to roles in the foreign service, where they represent the nation abroad. The women that have worked in these positions have devoted themselves to the interests of others and promoting progress.
Facing the turmoil of the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt built a team of leaders dedicated to returning prosperity to the country. Francis Perkins (1880-1965) was the perfect candidate, becoming the first woman appointed to a presidential cabinet. She had a reputation of successful work with labor groups, having spent 20 years improving working conditions in New York. As Secretary of Labor she was a vital force behind the Social Security Act of 1938, helping to create standards for minimum wage, working hours, worker safety, and unemployment benefits. She continued her work under President Truman as chair of the Civil Service Commission.
Advising the President and Representing the Nation
Patricia Harris (1924-1985) was raised to believe that education was the means for success. She graduated first in her class in the Howard University law school and began a long, distinguished career as a lawyer, educator and public administrator. At Howard, she served as dean and professor as well as President Kennedy’s appointed chairperson of the National Women’s Committee. Harris’ work continued as she became the first female African American U.S. ambassador and the first African American woman appointed to a presidential cabinet.
Advising the President and Representing the Nation
In 1927, Frances Willis (1899-1983) joined the Foreign Service, beginning a historic career. During her time as secretary in the U.S. legation in Stockholm in 1934, Frances assumed the responsibilities of the minister in his absence. Francis became the first U.S. woman to serve as a chief of missions abroad. She quickly rose through the ranks to become an ambassador, serving in places around the world and in the United Nations. She was an extraordinary diplomat who remained active even in retirement. She was honored by the U.S. Postal Service as one of five trailblazing diplomats in the Distinguished American Diplomats series.
In Women on Stamps: Part 1, we explored the accomplishments and achievements of women in the United States. These women helped build America and made it their home. The actions of women such as Harriet Tubman, Elizabeth Stanton and Eleanor Roosevelt provided a foundation for the role of women in America, influencing later generations and empowering change. The stamps featured here help commemorate the achievements of these women and honor their place in history.
Women on Stamps: Part 2 features women who pioneered in the fields of health, science, education, philanthropy, aviation and athletics.
Women on Stamps: Part 3 features women who have made significant contributions to the visual arts and literature.
Women on Stamps: Part 4 features women who have made significant contributions to the performing arts.
The four Women on Stamps virtual exhibits are part of a larger effort to focus on diversity within America. To learn more about American diversity, go to the National Postal Museum's Virtual Exhibits page to view virtual exhibits on African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, and American Indians.
Created by Lauren Golden, Intern, and Christine Mereand, Arago Volunteer Coordinator, National Postal Museum
References used in this exhibit include:
Davis, Anita Price and Louise Hunt. Women on United States Postage Stamps. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2008.
James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women 1607-1950. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.
Read, Phyllis J. and Bernard L. Witlieb. The Book of Women’s Firsts. New York: Random House, 1992.
Willard, Francis E and Mary A. Livermore, ed. Great Women of the 19th Century. Amherst, New York: Humanity Books, 2005.
Women on Stamps. United States Postal Service Publication 512. April 2003.