Matt Iglesias at Vox first discussed what a good idea it would be to have a woman on the $20 bill last July. But it was a more recent Vox story by Libby Nelson that seems to have kicked off a surge in media attention given to the idea that is being promoted by the organization Women on 20s. Here’s Iglesias taking note of President Obama’s comment eight months ago that getting a woman on our currency would be a “pretty good idea”:
This really does seem like something that we ought to fix. Historically the big problem is that when women have been honored on American currency, it’s come in the form of dollar coins. There was the Susan B Anthony dollar and then more recently the Sacagawea dollar. Both have been discontinued, and no dollar coin is going to be popular as long as paper dollar bills remain in circulation.
Rather than trying to pry paper dollars out of the American people’s cold, dead hands, a better idea would be to take Andrew Jackson off the $20, as Jillian Keenan argued a few months back. Many presidents oversaw mistreatment of American Indians, but Jackson’s policies in this regard were especially egregious. He was also a proponent of slavery, and his crank monetary policies—including an opposition to paper money—make him almost uniquely unsuited for a role on currency.
For Indians of the so-called Five Civilized Tribes—Seminole, Muscogee-Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Cherokee—not having to see the visage of the ethnic-cleansing Jackson every time we go to an ATM would be a blessing. But removing Jackson—whose image has been on the $20 bill since it replaced that of Grover Cleveland in 1928—seemed like nothing more than a pipe-dream or just a journalist’s topic for a slow summer news day.Early this month, however, Vox’s Nelson brought to public notice that there is an actual campaign being built around picking a woman to replace Jackson. Since then, the Boston Globe, CNN, Quartz, Fast Company, US News & World Report, the Philadelphia Inquirer and many other news media have all taken notice of Women on 20s. The group’s website states:
The year 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment that granted women the right to vote. So it seems fitting to commemorate that milestone by voting to elevate women to a place that is today reserved exclusively for the men who shaped American history. That place is on our paper money. And that new portrait can become a symbol of greater changes to come.
Let’s make the names of female “disrupters”—the ones who led the way and dared to think differently—as well-known as their male counterparts. In the process, maybe it will get a little easier to see the way to full political, social and economic equality for women. And hopefully it won’t take another century to realize the motto inscribed on our money: E pluribus unum, or “Out of many, one.”
The group is asking people to vote their choices from a roster of 15 women. The list—already winnowed from 30 to 15—will be further culled through three rounds of voting. The group hopes to get 100,000 votes because that’s how many names it takes at the White House petition site to get an official response. The candidates: Alice Paul, Clara Barton, Frances Perkins, Susan B. Anthony, Rachel Carson, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Betty Friedan, Shirley Chisholm, Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks, Barbara Jordan, Margaret Sanger, Patsy Mink, Harriet Tubman and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Although Congress can determine who will appear on U.S. currency, the makeup of that body right now means any change would probably be a contest not among some influential women but rather between Ronald Reagan and J.P. Morgan or some other Robber Baron. Indeed, there have been attempts to put Reagan on the $10, the $20 and, in 2010, the $50, replacing U.S. Grant with the visage of The Great Communicator in time for his 100th birthday in 2011.
But Congress isn’t the only route to a change. The Secretary of the Treasury also has authority to designate a replacement for Jackson or any of the other people peering out at us from our paper money. The Women on 20s campaigners hope to persuade Obama to direct Secretary Jack Lew to pick a woman for the $20 bill in time.
My personal choice for the $20 is disrupter Harriet Tubman. Herself a fugitive slave, armed with a pistol, she risked capture and worse at least 13 times by returning to Maryland to some 70 slaves out of bondage, guiding them along the Underground Railroad to safety in Canada. She endorsed John Brown’s efforts, raising money and recruiting ex-slaves in Ontario to join the attack on the Harpers Ferry armory in what was meant to be the spark setting off a rebellion to end slavery. During the Civil War, she served as a nurse and in the summer of 1863 a leader of scouts and the first woman of that war to lead an armed assault, part of the Combahee River Raid that freed 750 slaves. She then recruited most of the liberated men into the Union Army. She spent her later years fighting for women’s suffrage.
You don’t get more disruptive of the established order than that.
On the occasion of a biography of her life published in 1868, the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, himself once a fugitive slave, wrote her a letter:
You ask for what you do not need when you call upon me for a word of commendation. I need such words from you far more than you can need them from me, especially where your superior labors and devotion to the cause of the lately enslaved of our land are known as I know them. The difference between us is very marked. Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day—you in the night. … The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism. Excepting John Brown—of sacred memory—I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than you have.
You can vote here for Tubman or one of the other 14 women.