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On the Money: Which Bill Is Fitting for a Woman? And Which Woman Fits the Bill Best?

August 4, 2015
by Marica Petrey
10 dollar bill missing the portrait

Your Facebook feed has probably already told you this, but the public response to U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew’s decision to feature a woman on a redesigned $10 bill has been overwhelming—he says the Treasury has received nearly a million and a half comments and tweets about it. Not everyone is happy, particularly those who campaigned to get a woman on the more popular $20, and are still fighting to change his mind.

Nor will the new bill be an absolute first. Contrary to popular belief, a few women have appeared on U.S. bills in the past, although granted, most were allegorical characters or minor subjects in artistic renderings. The exception, for a brief time, was first First Lady Martha Washington, and even she eventually was forced to share the billing with her husband.

Silver certificate

But the prospect of a real American woman for the first time getting star billing on a note has uncorked a “Who’s Who” debate about the identity of that woman. The Treasury’s requirements: That she be American, a contributor to what Lew calls our diverse democracy, and dead. (Those rules disqualify Miss Oklahoma’s first choice, Oprah, as well as two of the names advocated by CSPAN callers: the Virgin Mary and Diana Princess of Wales.)

A McClatchy-Marist poll released today indicates that one in four Americans favor social justice champion and activist former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, giving her a wide lead over first runner-up Harriet Tubman.

Photo of Eleanor Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt

The grassroots organization “Women on 20s” waged a viral social media campaign for a woman on the $20 and, after winnowing down a list of 100 candidates, held two rounds of voting between March and May, collecting more than 600,000 votes. Their semi-finalists included distinguished women whom, sadly, average Americans might have more trouble identifying, including Frances Perkins, suffragette Alice Paul and politician Patsy Mink, from a field of nominees that included abolitionist Lucretia Mott, Gray Panthers founder Maggie Kuhn, lawyer and National Equal Pay Party candidate Belva Lockwood, and physician and cancer-treatment pioneer Elise Strang L’Esperance.

Their final ballot narrowed to two more-familiar runners-up—civil rights movement icon Rosa Parks and Roosevelt—as well as Cherokee Nations Chief Wilma Mankiller, the first female elected chief of a major Native American tribe. Organizers added her name in recognition of the fact that the $20 currently bears the portrait of former president Andrew Jackson, a man perhaps best known for brutalizing Native Americans and driving them from their homes.

The top vote-getter in the Women on 20s poll? Tubman, the African American who escaped slavery by fleeing North, only to return South to lead more than 300 others to freedom.

Photo of Harriet Tubman
Harriet Tubman

The final decision rests with Lew (perhaps with a little input from his boss, President Obama). He plans to unveil the selection this fall, and launch the new note in 2020, to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote.

Meantime, we queried some notable UC Berkeley alums, faculty and politicians on their favorite contenders.

Former governor of Michigan Jennifer Granholm votes for Rosa Parks, famous for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man. “She was a warrior for the everyman and everywoman. She stands for every improbable warrior in every seemingly small moment where truth and justice are at risk,” she says.

Robert Reich, professor of public policy at the Goldman School, contends that the first female Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, should be featured. As he notes, she “invented Social Security, national minimum wage, national 40-hour workweek with time and a half for overtime, national unemployment insurance, and federal law for collective bargaining.”

Photo of Frances Perkins
Frances Perkins

White House Correspondent for National Public Radio Tamara Keith is firmly in the Tubman camp. “She made a number of perilous journeys into slave country to free slaves and guide them to safety in the north,” Keith says. “She was probably the best known ‘conductor’ on the Underground Railroad and by all accounts a total badass.”

Accomplished pianist Sarah Cahill would be content with the selection of Parks, Tubman or Roosevelt, but says, “In a perfect world, I would love to see artists celebrated on U.S. currency, as they are on currency of some other countries in which the arts receive more respect. Mexico, for instance, features both Frida Kahlo and the poet Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz—both women.”

Candace Falk, editor/director of the Emma Goldman Papers at UC Berkeley, would like to see—unsurprisingly—Emma Goldman, whom she describes as a fighter for “freedom, the right to self-expression, [and] everybody’s right to beautiful radiant things.” But given the unlikeliness of the government placing an anarchist on its currency, Falk goes with Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress. Or Wilma Mankiller.

Diane Dwyer, correspondent for NBC Bay Area and on the faculty of the Haas School of Business, says Susan B. Anthony should be on the bill for her work campaigning for women’s suffrage. (Anthony has appeared on a $1 coin.)

UC President Janet Napolitano declined to respond.

Democratic presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also has refused to say exactly which woman should be featured on the new bill, but she has voiced her disappointment with the decision that a woman would appear only on the $10, and would have to share the spot with current $10 occupant Alexander Hamilton: “That sounds pretty second-class to me.”

Others, including 65 members of Congress who signed a letter of objection, are upset at the thought of demoting Hamilton, the nation’s first Treasury Secretary, although the official website for the new $10 bill stresses that the “image of Alexander Hamilton will remain part of the $10 note.” For many people, it’s galling that the $20 continues to honor Jackson, who in addition to his human rights abuses also trusted only gold and silver coins, and detested paper money. Treasury’s answer: “The Advanced Counterfeit Deterrence Steering Committee recommends that the $10 note be next in line for redesign, basing its decision on current and potential security threats to currency notes.”

Despite the fact that the women (and their parts) thus far gloriously featured on U.S. currency have been purely fictional, some still managed to stir up controversy. One of the most elaborate ever printed was the “Educational Series” from 1896, in which highly detailed allegorical vignettes and motifs were depicted to promote advancements in science. The $1 note from the series, “History instructing Youth,” shows a woman instructing a young boy about the Constitution.

Photo of 'One Silver Dollar'

Here is a close-up of the $2 note from the same series, entitled “Science presents Steam and Electricity to Commerce and Manufacture.”

Close up of a piece of US currency

The image printed on the $5 note, now considered by many numismatists to be the most beautiful, also turned out to be the most provocative. Titled “Electricity as the Dominant Force in the World,” it features a woman front and center, partially clad in billowing robes, holding up a light bulb. Women around her blow trumpets and a man in a chariot behind her grasps lightning bolts. Rumor has it that after the first batch was printed and sent to a bank in Boston, one of the bankers’ wives saw the note and was mortified by the naked breast and dangerously low robes. Once word got out, the note sparked so much outrage that it was “banned in Boston.”

Five Silver Dollar

A real woman, the Algonquin princess Matoaka, better known as Pocahontas, appeared in a vignette on the back of the $20 bill in 1865. The artwork was from an 1836 painting by John Gadsby Chapman called the Baptism of Pocahontas. It shows Pocahontas kneeling in prayer in front of Reverend Alexander Whitaker, her future husband John Rolfe standing behind her, surrounded by her family and colonists.

20 Silver Dollar

The only real, non-allegorical woman ever printed solo on paper money was Washington. She appeared on the front of the $1 Silver Certificate in 1886 and in 1896 was moved to the “greenback” side of the bill, facing her husband. By 1928, she was completely replaced by George. And while other nations used their currency to celebrate the achievements of their distinguished women in politics, science and the arts, the stars of U.S. paper currency have been predominately the older-white-men-in-powdered-wigs set ever since.

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