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Kate Bush-McKee

Women of Notes: Paper Currency Adds New Historic Female Faces

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You’ve likely heard that Harriet Tubman will be the face of the new $20 bill, but did you know that many impactful women of American history, as well as one man, will be featured on other bill denominations as well?  Gals, it’s about time.

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Representing historic women on paper currency in the U.S. has been a long time coming.  In fact, it’s been over a century since a female face has been depicted on paper money.  As of 2016, Martha Washington and Pocahontas are the only women to have ever graced a greenback, while only three women have ever appeared on non-commemorative U.S. coins: Sacagawea, Helen Keller, and Susan B. Anthony.  (We’re not counting the fictional goddess, Liberty.) 

To appear on a U.S. bill, it's required that the person be well known in history and must be deceased.  The Secretary of the Treasury, together with the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, pick those worthy of the designs.

Five women influential to the women’s suffrage movement, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and Alice Paul, will be added to the back of the $10 bill, while Alexander Hamilton (the first Treasury Secretary of the U.S.) will remain on the front.  Of course, this is significant due to the 1913 Women’s Suffrage Parade demanding Constitutional amendments for female voting rights on the steps of the Treasury Building. 

The $5 bill, on the other hand, will keep Honest Abe while adding portraits of Eleanor Roosevelt, Marian Anderson, and Martin Luther King, Jr. to its back, all of whom took part in important events at the Lincoln Memorial.  After being refused permission to sing in Constitution Hall in 1939 because of her race, gifted African American singer Marian Anderson, with the help of Eleanor Roosevelt, performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday of that year.  Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech on the same steps in 1963.

If you were wondering, George Washington won’t be going anywhere.  As of 2001, it’s actually illegal to change the face of the $1 bill. 

The biggest change is the addition of Harriet Tubman, another staunch supporter of women’s voting rights.  Along with the aforementioned persons, Tubman will be the first African American in our nation’s history to appear on a U.S. banknote.  Born into slavery, Harriet Tubman helped over 300 slaves escape the South via the Underground Railroad in the mid-1800s, often wearing disguises and dressing in a soldier’s uniform.  She personally led 19 secret trips to free those still in slavery, at times armed with only a rifle and the knowledge of how to tell the weather, gather food, and follow stars. 

She will be replacing Andrew Jackson, our nation’s seventh President, on the front of the $20 bill.  Jackson will remain on the bill on the opposite side, a correlation the U.S Treasury Department’s website is unclear about.  In fact, nobody is really sure why he replaced Grover Cleveland on the $20 bill in 1928 to begin with.  Jackson himself hated paper money and personally tried to crush the idea of a national United States bank.  While treasury.gov couldn’t conclusively share the reasoning for this change, the website provides ample information regarding various symbolism on our bills including explanation about the Eye of Providence and the significance of the series of years and suffixes on paper money.

In a time where over half the United States’ population is female and eight years after the election of our first African American President, couldn’t we stand to be more representative?

Changes to bills are made every seven to ten years to deter counterfeiters, now even including tactual features to aid the blind.  These new bills, however, will not be in circulation until 2020 when the designs will be unveiled and not widely available until the 2030s. 

While it’s pleasing to see representation of a more diverse group of historical figures on our currency, the question still remains, why not bigger changes?  While no one would object to honoring the makers of American history, in a time where over half the United States’ population is female and eight years after the election of our first African American President, couldn’t we stand to be more representative?

 

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