On the eve of the current session of the Commission on the Status of Women, Cora Weiss received her new United States passport. Weiss, president of the Hague Appeal for Peace, is well known around the United Nations as a strong supporter of women’s rights — and a globetrotter. Flipping through her 52-page passport (she gets the jumbo-size version) she was soon riveted to the quotes from famous Americans that appeared on many pages.
She calculated that of the 21 people quoted in the 52-page passport only two are from women. They are Jessamyn West, an Indiana-born Quaker who wrote “The Friendly Persuasion” and other largely forgotten books, and Anna Julia Cooper, an African-American scholar of US history. In the smaller 28-page passport just Cooper makes the cut. She says, “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, the very birthright of humanity.”
Most of the men memorialized in the passport are predictably safe historical figures: numerous former presidents, from George Washington to Ronald Reagan (Abraham Lincoln gets two mentions). The leading literary entry is E.B. White, author of “Charlotte’s Web” and “Stuart Little.” There are also a few orators, clergymen, politicians and an astronaut from Hawaii. Quotes from historical documents and monuments round out the collection.
All the people quoted have made a mark somehow in American life. But are their words necessarily the most representative or remarkable of messages Americans might carry around the world in their passports? How did they get chosen?
A State Department official who declined to be named said that the decisions on which quotes to put in the passport were made by the bureau of consular affairs leadership in 2005 after an internal working group narrowed the field. The criteria for choosing quotes included that they come from notable historical figures (all are deceased) and that they reflect motifs depicted on the pages of the passport. (Thomas Jefferson among cactuses?) Most important, the official said in an e-mail, is that the quotes had to be available in the public domain. No risk of copyright challenges allowed.
Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.