The United States postal service honored women long before other government agencies did. The first women Senator wasn't elected until 1932, but Martha Washington, wife of the First president of this great nation, graced a US postage stamp worth 1 1⁄2 cents in 1902, 100 years after her death. In fact, she was the second woman to have this honor—the first? Queen Isabella, the Sugar Mama who bought Chris Columbus’ three hour tour and subsequent discovery of America. She was featured on a stamp in the first year of commemorative stamps-1893.
Other women to be licked and sticked to envelopes in America's history? Clara Barton, Eleanor Roosevelt, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, and Frida Kahlo.
Wait. Frida Kahlo? Who is that? Wasn’t there a movie about her?
Born of mixed European and Mexican parentage, Frida Kahlo was a 20th Century painter, born and raised in Mexico And really, she seems like kind of a strange character next to the other woman on these stamps. She isn't Martha Washington, and she certainly isn't Marilyn Monroe, who landed her face on a stamp in 1995. Without the Patriotic angle or the American Icon edge, how did Frida Kahlo get stamped?
The Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee (CSAC), who are the folks responsible for choosing what ends up on our nation’s postage are required to follow a certain set of rules. The 12 criteria were created in the early 1970's and are under a constant process of refinement. The criteria seemed to make sense, but a two items in specific gave me pause:
1. It is a general policy that U.S. postage stamps and stationery primarily will feature American or American-related subjects.
2. Only events, persons, and themes of widespread national appeal and significance will be considered for commemoration.
Not only was Frida not an American, but she didn't even like America or Americans. In some of her letters, now published, she told friends, “I don’t like Gringos much”, in reference to the people of San Francisco. She later depicted America as an industrial wasteland in her paintings. She definitely is does not have "widespread national appeal" considering how many people I spoke to had never even heard of her.
I can understand that perhaps the stamp was selected to honor Kahlo’s art, which is unusual and beautiful. However, it wasn't just her art that was pictured on the stamp, it was her self portrait. Her face. She in no way met American standards of anything, beauty or purity or loyalty: proudly unibrowed, bisexual, practically disabled and communist. Nevertheless, Frida was the first Hispanic woman to be featured on a US postage stamp.
In search of more information on the Kahlo stamp, I visited the National Postal Museum.
Lurking around the gift shop, intent on solving the Frida mystery, I was immediately drawn to a well-lit rotating silver cart on the checkout counter adorned in 1x2inch pins, replicating US Stamps. I searched through it, looking for Frida. I found Judy Garland, in her role as Dorothy Gale, Marian Anderson, representing Black Heritage, and Lucille Ball, the American film actress, selling for $4 each, but no Frida.
I find postcards depicting “Women on Stamps.” No Frida there.
I open a book of postcards called “Women Who Dared”, published by Pomegranate Books in San Francisco and find Frida on the second page looking down and off to the side—a far cry from her own self-depictions, aggressively and honestly addressing her audience. It was an actual photograph of Frida Kahlo—on the back Frida is described as a “Mexican Painter and international intellectual celebrity.” Really? Did she achieve this international intellectual celebrity before or after conservative Americans shunned her political and personal views?
Who can explain the Frida Phenomenon? Certainly not Mary Oldfather, the Volunteer Information Specialist, who was having some sinus trouble when she spoke to me, due to the influx of pollen from museum visitors. When I showed her Frida’s image she responded enthusiastically, through her phlegm, “Frida Kahlo! I saw a PBS special on her.” Hmmm, so it wasn’t Frida’s stampdom Mary knew, it was her PBS fame.
In the National Stamp Collection, I found Frida along side Leonard Bernstein and Enrico Fermi, who were also immortalized on stamps in 2001. In this collection the stamps are arranged inside glass panels which slide out vertically from a wall of numbered panels. The collection is international, approximately 20,000 in this small room in the museum, and only a small section of them US Stamps. A really small section, I notice. I count them, looking foolish among Philatelists admiring the printing and the “grills” of the aging stamps. 108. There are 108 US stamps in this collection of 20,000 international stamps. Obviously someone liked Frida enough to make her #81 . The only other women in the United States panels are Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary McLeod Bethune. Frida was one of two stamps depicting Hispanic culture.
How did Frida get here?
Cathy Yarosky, a spokesperson for the United States Postal Service, who has had to put up with a lot of public complaints and inquiries (like those that came in 10 days after a stamp honoring Muslims in America was released on Sept 1, 2001), summed up the release of the Kahlo stamp for me rather succinctly: “We select stamps that capture the American experience in all its diversity. At the end of the day, our stamps are always about America.”
But then again, “Cellular Phones” got their own stamp in 2000. So maybe I’m taking the issue of the stamp a little too seriously. Frida Kahlo and her art contributed to the diversity of the American landscape and played an important role in the feminist movement in America in the late 20th Century. Frida’s face on a stamp demonstrates that the US, or at least the USPS, isn’t always focused on mass appeal. As long as Paris Hilton doesn’t get a stamp, I’ll continue to trust the choices of United States Postal Service.