A few months ago when my new passport arrived, I tore open the envelope with the relief of someone who had already booked a two-week international trip. The first stamp in my new book would be Morocco, which is what I was thinking about as I flipped through the pristine blank pages.
I had thumbed through my old passport countless times while waiting to board flights or in endless security lines. I’d squint at the smudged stamps strewn across its pages, remembering where I had been and imagining where I was headed. But on the empty pages of my new passport, I noticed for the first time that many of them featured quotes from famous (and some less famous) Americans.
There, on pages 8 and 9 — the first ones reserved for entry and exit stamps — above images of Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, was a quote from George Washington: “Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair.” A few pages later, paired with a soaring bald eagle and grazing bison, were the words of Martin Luther King Jr.: “We have a great dream. It started way back in 1776, and God grant that America will be true to her dream.” And on the very next pages, floating above Mount Rushmore, was John F. Kennedy’s Cold War message that Americans were prepared to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship.”
I started flipping more quickly. On page 17, there was Theodore Roosevelt. On page 19, Dwight D. Eisenhower. And on page 21, Lyndon B. Johnson. All men. There was the inscription on the Golden Spike, and an excerpt from the Mohawk Thanksgiving Address. Those, too, are attributed to men.
It wasn’t until I landed on page 26 that I found it — the solitary quote from a woman.
I thought perhaps I had skipped a page or two. So I went back to the beginning and counted: 13 quotes, 12 from men.
The current passport design, known as the “American Icon,” was unveiled in 2007. (The previous version featured official state seals, but no quotes.) When The Times wrote about the new look, Ann Barrett, then deputy assistant secretary of state for passport services, had this to say: “We thought it really, truly reflects the breadth of America as well as the history. We tried to be inclusive of all Americans.”
Reading that, I uttered an audible, “What?” I honestly hadn’t expected a 50-50 split. But a 12-to-1 ratio of men to women was more than a little disappointing.
And I was curious, who was the one woman who made the cut?
Her name is Anna Julia Cooper, and until the day my passport arrived, I had never heard of her. But a little online research later, I was convinced that if there was room for just one woman, she was an excellent choice.
Cooper was born into slavery in 1858. She earned undergraduate and masters degrees from Oberlin College, and a Ph.D. from the Sorbonne, making her just the fourth African-American woman to earn a doctorate. The author of multiple books, Cooper was an advocate for civil rights and for equality in education for African Americans and women. She lectured across the United States and internationally, and worked as a teacher and a school principal. Cooper lived to 105, which seems about right, considering all she accomplished. Here was a woman who was born before the Civil War and died in 1964, just months before Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. She didn’t just witness the transformation of a nation, she was a part of that transformation.
So, yes, she should be celebrated in our passport. And there her quote reads: “The cause of freedom is not the cause of a race or a sect, a party or a class — it is the cause of humankind and the very birthright of humanity.” If any single quote sums up the purported American values, I’d say that’s it.
When I travel abroad, I think about what it means to be traveling as an American. I feel like an ambassador of sorts — that my behavior, my language skills (or lack thereof), my choice of restaurants or museums reflect not just on me, but on all Americans. I also think about what it means to be traveling as a woman.
When my friend Adriann and I were planning that trip to Morocco, we got a lot of advice: Women should cover their shoulders and their legs. Expect to haggle when shopping. Consider hiring a male guide to navigate the souks of Marrakesh. Some of that advice we followed (we dressed modestly), and some we didn’t (we braved the markets on our own). We asked a lot of questions about what neighborhoods to stay in, where to eat and what sites to see. But we never questioned whether we, as women, could go to Morocco.
No one ever told me I couldn’t go somewhere because I am a woman. No one ever told me I couldn’t vote because I am a woman. And no ever one told me I couldn’t hold a certain job because I am a woman. None of this is to say that the fight for equality is over or that all American women can say the same things. But as an American woman, I am free to travel without a man and without permission. And I can afford to travel because of the education I received and the jobs I’ve held. It is equality that was hard won by countless women who came before me. Women like Anna Julia Cooper.
But that equality is not reflected back at me when I look at my passport. When I travel, that document is the one thing I have that says, “I am American.” But upon close inspection, it also says something else. It says that America is a country built by men, and that our achievements and values are best articulated by men.
In America, we have a long history of enshrining in our official documents ideals that we have not yet lived up to. The phrase “all men are created equal” was written at a time when we enslaved men, women and children. But if nothing else, those documents give us something to strive for; they inspire us to be a more perfect union. And while I don’t suggest that the passport carries the importance of the Constitution or Declaration of Independence, it is the only document that gets carried around the globe and handed over on a daily basis.
This fall, the State Department will begin the multiyear process of redesigning the United States passport, and in a statement, an official said that it is, “committed to identifying quotations and artwork for our passport books that are representative of America’s diversity and rich history.”
To that end, it might consider including the women who advanced the imagination and ideals of this country. Alongside Anna Julia Cooper, perhaps we could hear from aviator Amelia Earhart, who said, “Courage is the price that life extracts for granting peace.” Or from the journalist Ida B. Wells (herself denied a passport after being labeled “a known race agitator”), who said, “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”
Or maybe from one of our founding mothers, Abigail Adams, who presciently cautioned her husband that, “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”
Lauren Prestileo is a writer and multimedia producer living outside Boston.