Paper Money

Top 10 Stories of 2015: Women on 20s movement 0124 Coin World

Martha Washington is the only woman to be depicted in portrait form on the face of a piece of U.S. paper money, the Series 1886 $1 silver certificate. She also appears on the back of the 1896 $1 silver certificate.

Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

If you identified one hobby-related story that received more attention nationwide in 2015 than any other, it has to be the movement to place a woman’s portrait on a Federal Reserve note and the Treasury’s eventual support of the cause.

However, Treasury officials backed away from a promise to identify which woman would be so honored by the end of 2015, instead saying on Dec. 11 that more time was needed to consider the public’s recommendations.

A woman has not appeared on a piece of U.S. paper money since the early 20th century and in the second decade of the 21st century, that is just wrong in the view of many Americans.

That is going to change sometime after 2020, though not precisely in the way a prominent movement, Women on $20s, had proposed in early 2015.

Just two actual women have been depicted on U.S. paper money — Martha Washington, on the Series 1886 and 1896 $1 silver certificates; and Pocahontas, on Original Series and Series 1875 $20 national bank notes, the latter of which were produced until 1902. 

Today, the seven denominations of Federal Reserve notes all depict men, and at least half of them have “image problems,” including slave ownership and abuse of the nation’s native inhabitants.

A call for a woman

Since 1929, all denominations have shown the same men on the faces and, with just a few exceptions, the same themes on the backs. Even when major redesigns were introduced starting in the mid-1990s, officials stayed with the same men and themes, showing a distinct conservatism. Over the years, various groups and individuals have promoted the idea of replacing one or more of the men now depicted with someone new, including a woman, but the prime candidate has been Ronald Reagan. None of those efforts, however, resulted in change. Until 2015.

Early in the year, a private initiative, Women on 20s, began a massive effort to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 note with a woman. Jackson was identified as the target for replacement because of his history of slave ownership and his treatment of Native Americans, most notoriously through the Trail of Tears — the forced relocation of Indians from their eastern lands to points west.

Social media made the difference this time, and thousands took to Facebook and Twitter to support the cause. President Obama in late July said the proposal “was a pretty good idea.” Not long after, his Treasury secretary, Jacob Lew, announced that the woman would be depicted on an upcoming note, but the $10 bill and not the $20 note. The $10 note, which depicts Alexander Hamilton, is the next note to be redesigned, with the new look scheduled to be unveiled in 2020 and released into circulation sometime after. (Some of the elements to appear on the new $10 note were first ordered in 2008.) Lew’s decision created something of a backlash, in that Hamilton, as the founder of the U.S. banking and currency systems, is a popular choice free of most of the baggage of his peers depicted on the notes. 

Treasury officials caused more controversy when they announced that Hamilton wouldn’t be replaced on the note, but that he would continue to be depicted on the note along with a woman to be determined later. To many supporters of the cause, the decision that a woman would have to share placement on a note was upsetting.

Treasury officials, however, said that the change to the $20 note will the first of many, prompting some to wonder whether the nation’s notes will finally show a more diverse population than they have in the past. Andrew Jackson’s days still may be numbered when the $20 note is redesigned, probably in the 2020s.

So who will be depicted on the $10 note? We don’t know, as Treasury officials are still going over public input (apparently a lot of comments were received). Popular contenders include Harriet Tubman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Helen Keller, and Amelia Earhart. Long shots that were part of Women on 20s’ original list include Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, a choice that almost certainly would not be attempted, viewed as being too controversial.

Little doubt exists that at least one woman and likely more will appear on U.S. paper money during the next decade. The question is, who and when.

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