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The ‘Accidental Feminist’ Who’s Rewriting History

Former US Treasurer Rosie Rios strives to put women in their proper place in history.

Photograph by Vicki Sanders

You carry her signature around with you every day in your pocket, if you happen to have 1 of the 1.2 trillion US bills that went into circulation during her time in office. You may not know it, but it was her thrust to get a woman on United States currency that culminated in 2016 when Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew announced that the new $20 bill would feature a portrait of Harriet Tubman.

Rosie Gumataotao Rios has had quite the decorated career, from managing director of a $22 billion firm in San Francisco to serving in the Obama administration as 43rd Treasurer of the United States. And she’s just getting started. Now, her Empowerment 2020 campaign seeks to “right history” and put women in the three-c positions of power and leadership: “corporate boards, C-Suites, and Congress,” she says.

Hosted by the Boston College Women’s Law Center, Rios came to BC Law towards the end of Women’s History Month to speak to students about her time in the US Treasury as well as her personal and professional fight for gender equality. Rios’ time in office and beyond has always been buttressed by functional arguments and common-sense proposals, as opposed to soaring rhetoric or unrealistic ideas. Her March 22 talk followed a similar line of reasoning.

For example, Rios believes that having the faces of women on our currency isn’t only a feminist issue, “it’s just a matter of our country’s history.” Getting the facts straight. A matter of equity, rather than equality. Setting the right examples for the nation’s young girls—and boys. These are the driving forces behind her advocacy and empowerment. They’re why she decidedly deems herself an “accidental feminist.”

Chance encounters with prevalent societal structures of gender-based inequality—and a recurring sense of shock—is what drove her towards accidental feminism. Over the course of her tenure in the US Treasury, she said, she was “awakened in ways when you have no idea.”

She came to BC Law prepared with examples and was even able to highlight one on the spot. Of the over 300 Congressional Gold Medals, only eight have been given to American non-spouse women. New York City and Washington, DC, have only a handful of statues and monuments for women, yet dozens and dozens for men. She realized that no woman’s face had been on a bill in over 100 years. Ironically, she pointed out to the audience, the very lecture hall they were sitting in had only portraits of men. “It’s everywhere and you just don’t know it until someone says holy cow!” she exclaimed.

It was this dominant sense of underrepresentation and historical mischaracterization that irked Rios. “If this is how we document the history of our very nascent country, how are we missing half the people in the country?” Rios asked. When we fail to include the memory and legacy of prominent women in American history in our public spaces—statues, portraits, landmarks—and on common items such as our coinage and currency, we are doing everyone, including men, a disservice, Rios said.

During her time in the treasury, Rios expanded the role of her position to go beyond the traditional duties of CEO of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and the United States Mint. She received a portfolio that included the Chair of the Advanced Counterfeiting Deterrence Steering Committee and Senior Advisor to the Secretary of the Treasury. While this may sound clunky and cryptic, it represented a significant expansion of substantive responsibilities.

“You’ve just got to try,” she said. With her new portfolio, she had considerably more latitude and discretion with her decision-making. She sat down with the Secretary of the Treasury every morning as an adviser. And, of course, this expanded footprint paved the way for what might have been the defining moment of her time in office—making the ask for a woman on the $20 bill. It was a pinnacle, of sorts, for women in the US Treasury that would eventually spill over into the American body politic at large.

Rios noted that for most of their time in the treasury, women held low-level, backroom positions, as depicted in the 1874 painting by Mary C. Ames, “Counting Worn and Defaced Greenbacks, and Detecting Counterfeits.” What a marked contrast from Rios’s tenure, when she joked she staged a clandestine “coup” to get a woman on US currency. In keeping with the accidental feminist strategy, she didn’t “play the woman card” when proposing her idea, but rather built the case for a new type of bill, one that included the newest counterfeiting techniques. Using this as a stepping-stone, she then advocated for a woman to replace Jackson. Her boss was receptive; the reaction at-large was emphatically positive.

As she traveled around the country to solicit ideas for the bill from thousands of citizens, she realized three things: 1) how much hate there is, 2) how little people know about history, and 3) how little people know specifically about the history of American women. This prompted another big idea.

Rios created a database, Teachers Righting History, an educational project that “highlights historic American women in classrooms across the country.” With this project she seeks to champion women’s role in history in schools, which is vital for our next generation of leaders, she said.

Rios’s next big goals—which she is currently carrying out with her newest movement, Empowerment 2020—are to get more woman into the three-c prongs of power and continue righting history. Ultimately, by the time the new $20 bills roll out, Rios envisions having taken significantly more strides towards gender equality. By her count, that “gives us three-and-a-half years to show what we’ve been doing the past 100.”

The day after her BC Law appearance, Rios was off to give a TED talk in Bermuda. In the past few months, she had partnered with YouTube and Google to create programs and resources intended to further the American public’s understanding of women in history. Given the pace at which she’s moving, and the amount she’s already gotten done, there’s reason to bet that she will hit all her goals by the time the Tubman twenties hit the printing press.