A stamp of approval on stamps about women

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You're standing at the counter of your local post office, waiting to buy stamps. You study the current selection: distinguished soldiers, summer sports, legends of baseball, submarines, telescopes, Hollywood composers, Broadway songwriters. You make a decision, but you wonder: Who chooses these designs, anyway?

That question also kept occurring to Jane Plitt of Rochester, N.Y. As an author and a visiting scholar at the University of Rochester, she has done "a lot of mailing" over the years. She says she "began to be appalled" when she started seeing stamps featuring Loony Tunes characters and spiders.

"I kept saying, 'Where are the women?' " Ms. Plitt recalls. "They told me, 'We have our women in the Black Heritage series.' Those stamps are wonderful, but there are just not enough of us on stamps."

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The choices, she adds, say a lot about "what people are seeing about America."

A curious Plitt began checking the US Postal Service's own records. In its August 1999 pamphlet titled "Women on Stamps," the department lists 133 stamps featuring women or women's issues. Plitt punched a few numbers into her calculator. The results were discouraging. Of the 1,722 commemorative stamps that have been issued, less than 8 percent focus on women.

Plitt also questions the validity of including 12 of those 133 stamps in the women's category.

"When they issue a stamp for Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts together, that's listed as a women's stamp," she explains. "Or when they list nursing as a profession, that's counted as a women's stamp. And when they cite the John Barrymore family, that's a women's stamp too, because there's a woman on it. It shows how far they are stretching."

Plitt's keen awareness of the imbalance stems in part from her role as biographer of a pioneering 19th-century entrepreneur, Martha Matilda Harper, whom Plitt calls the creator of modern retail franchising.

Harper, who was born in Canada, was an indentured servant for nearly 25 years before founding the Harper Method Shops and Schools, a hair- and skin-care franchise system. She opened her first beauty shop in Rochester in 1888. Her radical new business model eventually grew to a worldwide network of more than 500 shops, enabling women to become economically independent.

Harper's 19th-century management practices would be considered contemporary today. She provided child-care centers in each shop. She manufactured and promoted only organic products and procedures. She also maintained a customer-oriented focus.

Her clientele included world leaders, socialites, and suffragists. Among them: Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Calvin Coolidge, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Prime Minister Anthony Eden, first ladies Jacqueline Kennedy and Lady Bird Johnson, and Susan B. Anthony. The business operated until 1972.

Yet Harper has been forgotten, even in her own city of Rochester.

As one way of honoring her work, another Rochester resident, Rep. Louise Slaughter (D) of New York, is spearheading an unusual effort to portray Harper on a commemorative postage stamp.

That campaign will officially begin this Sunday, Aug. 20, at the Susan B. Anthony House in Rochester. Representative Slaughter and Plitt will launch a nationwide drive to get 150,000 signatures calling for a Harper stamp. The event will be part of a day-long celebration commemorating the 80th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. Slaughter will unveil the proposed stamp and distribute petitions calling for its creation.

She concedes that this is a "mammoth task." The large number of signatures is necessary, she says, to convince the Postal Service of a significant popular demand for the stamp. In a show of bipartisan interest, 15 representatives and one senator have already signed a letter of support.

But one stamp, however worthy, can't change perceptions about women's roles. Plitt and Slaughter emphasize that this is only the beginning of an overall effort to increase the number of women on stamps.

Each year the Postal Service gets thousands of suggestions for new postage stamps. A group called the Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee reviews all ideas. Members make recommendations to the postmaster general based on what they describe as "national interest, historical perspective, and other criteria."

Plitt points out that traditional women's roles are represented with stamps honoring teachers and nurses. She argues that nontraditional, innovative roles should also be celebrated with an American stamp. Franchising now dominates retail business. Only one businesswoman, Madame C. J. Walker, has appeared on a stamp, categorized under Black Heritage.

Does the image of women on stamps really matter? It's easy to argue that a stamp is a stamp, and that as long as it gets a letter to its destination, the design is somewhat irrelevant.

Not so, insists Plitt, the author of a new book, "Martha Matilda Harper and the American Dream." She says, "If you are not seen, you become invisible. This is just an example of how, probably unintentionally, there is this continuation of gender disappearance, as though we weren't there."

Adds Slaughter, "It's important that young women know that women in this country achieved greatness in many fields. They just were not recognized for it."

First a postage stamp. Then the history books. It's not too late to recognize the accomplishments of successful but forgotten American women.

Stay tuned at a post office near you. And move over, Roadrunner, Daffy Duck, and Elvis.

*For information on the petition: www.MarthaMatildaHarper.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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