Rosie Rios: From Accidental to Deliberate Feminist

Photo by Kevin Grady/Radcliffe InstitutePhoto by Kevin Grady/Radcliffe Institute
By Pat Harrison

During the summer of 2020, we will begin seeing designs for a new $20 bill featuring a woman: Harriet Tubman, who led hundreds of slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad. She will be only the second real woman to appear on the front of our country’s paper currency: Martha Washington was pictured on a one-dollar silver certificate in the 1880s and 1890s.

We can thank Rosie Rios ’87 for leading the charge to return a woman’s image to America’s paper money. As the 43rd treasurer of the United States, from 2009 to 2016, she led the effort to redesign our paper currency. By the summer of 2012, Timothy Geithner, the secretary of the US Department of the Treasury, to whom Rios reported, had approved the concept, but it took another four years to finish the job.

Ever careful about how she describes her work at the Treasury, Rios says, “Let’s just say I had a lot of interactions with people I refer to as ‘preservationists.’” Rios resigned from her government position in 2016 to start an initiative called Empowerment 2020, which she launched at the Radcliffe Institute in December 2016, while working as a visiting scholar and using the resources of the Schlesinger Library.

Phil Wilder, Rios’s high school American history teacher, inspired the first project of Empowerment 2020. Impressed with her work on the currency, he realized that after 35 years of teaching, he had no images of women on his classroom walls. Shortly after he shared this insight with Rios, she started Teachers Righting History, which gives teachers and students the resources to learn about historical American women.

A primary offering is a database of 250 American women—including Alice Coachman, the first African American woman to win an Olympic gold medal, and Henrietta Swan Leavitt, a pioneering astronomer—which Rios and others assembled during the public outreach process to choose an American woman for the $20 bill. The database is available online at teachersrightinghistory.org.

Another aspect of Empowerment 2020 is a project aimed at increasing the number of statues of women in public places. Rios grows heated when she talks about this topic. “Central Park is the most visited urban park in the United States, she says.” Can you name the female statues in the park? There are Mother Goose and Alice in Wonderland. But you have 23 real people, all men.”

Rios reports that New York Life has committed half a million dollars toward funding for the first statue of women in Central Park, which will feature the suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Because of her work on this project, Rios was the keynote speaker at the company’s official announcement this past February. The statue will be unveiled in 2020, the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage.

Rios says that the currency process awakened her to the invisibility of women and led her to these other projects. She began to call herself “an accidental feminist.”

Born in 1965, she was one of nine children raised by their single mother in a conservative Catholic household in northern California. “My first exposure to feminism, whether it was real or perceived, was what we saw on TV,” says Rios. “They were topics that my mother didn’t exactly want us young girls talking about at the dinner table: burning bras, contraception, and abortion. Those weren’t childhood topics in my household. But what I have learned in my adult life is that true feminism was around me the whole time. It was the courage, strength, and perseverance of my mom, who sent all nine of us to college. And I see that same strength and determination in my daughter today.”

Rios worked in her hometown library headquarters during high school, and when she went off to Harvard—the first of her family to attend college out of state—she again worked in libraries and sent money home to help with the other children.

Today, she serves on the Schlesinger Library Council because, she says, “The library is the preeminent institution for research on American women, and it’s an honor to serve Harvard.” She’s no longer an accidental feminist but a very deliberate one, with a newfound purpose.

Search Year: 
2017