Does putting a woman on the $20-bill represent actual change? Or does it mask systemic sexism and racism?
In most nations, important and strong figures adorn the coins and currency bills of exchange, from nobility, to political leaders, to national and cultural icons. Investigating these personalities can often serve as a litmus test identifying a given country’s power structures, values, priorities, and beliefs. Even in our era of plastic, currency personages can serve as ubiquitous, pocket-sized, and portable role models for contemporary and upcoming generations.
So in the history of the United States, where are the women and people of color? If our litmus test is accurate, it confirms that the nation was founded and maintained on a sexist and racist patriarchal underpinning, one that overtly inhibits the aspirations, opportunities, and ambitions of women, girls, and all people of color. On printed and minted currency, we find only a very few examples of women achieving this place of honor and vicarious immortality, and even far fewer people of color of any gender.
Women, expressed or as the allegorical “every woman,” cover a few ongoing and commemorative coins including:
One of the most identifiable is the 1860-1945, Winged Liberty Head dime. Also minted were the Alabama quarter depicting Helen Keller on the reverse side in 2003, Sacagawea on the dollar coin from 1999 to the present, and Susan B. Anthony on the dollar coin from 1979-1981. The first woman to appear on a U.S. coin was Queen Isabella of Spain on one side and an “every woman” on the other signifying women’s productivity on a commemorative quarter given at the Columbian Exposition of 1893. Other short-term commemorative coins included a Eunice Kennedy Shriver silver dollar in 1995; Virginia Dare, with her mother Eleanor Dare, on the Roanoke Island, North Carolina half dollar in 1937; and the Girl Scouts USA Centennial one dollar coin minted in 2013.
Women’s appearance on our bills represents the classifications of “rare” and “temporary.” The bronze Statue of Freedom by Thomas Crawford, the female figure atop the U.S. Capitol Dome, was introduced in 1862 on the five-dollar bill; between 1886-1891, Martha Washington emerged on the one dollar silver certificate; the 1896 two dollar silver bank note included a group of three women and two children; the 1863 ten cent fractional currency boasts a female bust; for use only in a U.S. military establishment, issued in 1954, an allegorical woman can be found on both sides of a five-cent military payment certificate.
Change in the Air?
An apparent movement has been set in motion. A grassroots non-for-profit group calling itself “Women on 20s” initiated a campaign and petition to choose a woman to replace Andrew Jackson on the 20 dollar bill. The winner of their online poll of 15 candidates is the abolitionist civil rights worker, Harriet Tubman. Eleanor Roosevelt came in second, Rosa Parks third, and Wilma Mankiller fourth. Other nominees included Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul, Patsy Mink, Shirley Chisholm, Francis Perkins, Sojourner Truth, Clara Barton, and Margaret Sanger. The petition went to President Obama in May for his action.
Since the year 2020 marks the 100-year commemoration of the passage of the 19th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution granting women the vote, petition organizers argue that the time has long-since come for women to grace our currency, especially our paper bills.
They chose to fire Andrew Jackson for a number of reasons. During the early years of the new republic, with its increasing population and desire for land, political leaders, such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, advocated that Native American Indian lands should be obtained through treaties and purchase. Later, however, when he inhabited the White House as the country’s 7th President, Andrew Jackson argued that white settlers (actually, land thieves) had a “right” to confiscate Indian land. Though he proposed a combination of treaties and an exchange or trade of land, he maintained that whites had a right to claim any Indian lands that were not under cultivation. Jackson recognized as the only legitimate claims for Indian lands those on which they grew crops or made other “improvements.”
The Indian Removal Act of May 28, 1830 authorized President Jackson to confiscate Indian land east of the Mississippi River, “relocate” its inhabitants, and exchange their former land with territory west of the River. The infamous “Trail of Tears” during Jackson’s presidency attests to the forced evacuation and redeployment of entire Indian nations in which many died of cholera, exposure to the elements, contaminated food, and other environmental hazards.
In addition, though Jackson founded the Democratic Party and brought greater popular control to government, as a farmer, his wealth increased enormously through his enslavement of Africans, and he gave the lash to any who attempted escape.
To the consternation of many in “Women on 20s” and others, U.S. Treasure Secretary, Jack Lew, announced recently that a prominent woman would be placed on the less circulated 10 dollar bill, sharing the cover with its current occupant, Alexander Hamilton, an abolitionist. Lew asserted that he chose the 10 dollar bill since it was the next in line to undergo a design change.
My Suggested Options
If we soon find more women and people of color on our currency, will this actually represent real changes in the status of women and people of color, or will this facelift simply mask the sexist and racist inequities rampant throughout our society?
Rather than replacing or adding others with the portraits on existing denominations of printed currency, I have a plan that will extend our litmus test to represent conditions as they actually exist within the hierarchy of our sexist and racist patriarchal system that is our economy. I propose new denominations representing the 2013 earnings of a number of demographic groups compared with white men doing the same work:
A white woman will now appear on the new 78 cents bill.
A black man will now appear on the new 75 cents bill.
A Latino man will now appear on the new 67 cents bill.
A black woman will now appear on the new 64 cents bill.
A Latina woman will now appear on the new 54 cents bill.
I maintain that this blueprint will give greater visibility to non-traditional currency honorees while reflecting the true economic inequities plaguing our land. So, let the nomination process for candidates commence!
Photo: Women on 20s