The Un-American History of Women on Money


Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of the Treasury announced that the $10 bill will feature a woman by the year 2020. So at a recent Republican debate, candidates were given a softball question about what woman they would choose to appear on American currency.

“Ooh, that’s a tough one,” said Rand Paul, suggesting Susan B. Anthony. The 19th century suffragist was a safe choice, given that she has already appeared on an American $1 coin.

Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump threw their hats in the ring for civil rights leader Rosa Parks. Scott Walker proposed American Red Cross founder Clara Barton. And Chris Christie, noting that “the Adams family has been shorted in the currency business,” selected First Lady Abigail Adams.

Jeb Bush proposed a foreign national—former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. And John Kasich suggested Mother Theresa, who was born in Albania but took Indian citizenship, though he noted that it would “probably not be maybe legal.”

The worst answers of the evening belonged to Ben Carson and Mike Huckabee, who chose figures of no broad political, civic or historical importance to the United States. Ben Carson said that the new $10 bill should feature his mother, while Mike Huckabee chose his wife.

“Who else could possibly be on that money other than my wife?” Huckabee asked.

Plenty of women, actually. And not just in a hypothetical future. Women have been appearing on currency for thousands of years, and as with people of any gender who appear on money, they symbolize something important to the polity doing the minting—something that the country wants people to be reminded of every time they perform a transaction.

Women have often appeared on money as mythical or religious figures. For instance, Greek coins minted in Syracuse between 310 and 307 BC depicted the goddess Persephone, the queen of the underworld. Another Syracusan coin from 460 BC featured the nymph Arethusa.

Women have also showed up on money in the form of living female rulers. During Cleopatra’s 51-30 BC rule of Egypt, a bronze coin was minted that featured the queen holding her young son and heir, Cesarean. In more recent years, Queen Elizabeth II has appeared on money all over the world. By the time she showed up on British pound notes in 1960, she had already graced the currency of Canada, Jamaica, Barbados, Rhodesia, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, and other Commonwealth countries. Most of these nations removed her from their money after gaining independence, but the Queen remains on the banknotes of Australia, New Zealand, Belize and Canada, among others.

But she is an anomaly, as contemporary currency generally doesn’t feature people who are still alive. In fact, in the U.S., this is mandated by law. So who does go on money? Generally, as many of the Republican candidates seem to have missed, it’s non-living people who have done notable things for their country. Argentina features first lady Eva Perón on its 100 peso note and political activist Manuela Rosas on its 20 peso note. Syria’s 500 pound note honors Queen Zenobia, who fought against Rome in the second century AD. And the Philippines features Corazon Aquino, the country’s first female president, on its 500 peso note, as well as suffragist Josefa Llanes Escoda on its 1,000 peso note.

There has also been a trend toward featuring people with accomplishments in the arts and sciences. Marie Curie, the Polish-born French scientist, appeared on money in both her native Poland and also in France, where she lived and worked. Mexico’s 500 peso note features Frida Kahlo. And England decided to put Jane Austen on the next £10 note, starting in 2017.

The U.S. has tried its hand at putting women on its money before, if half-heartedly, and in an almost directly tokenizing way. In addition to the Susan B. Anthony dollar coin, the U.S. Mint issued a Sacagawea dollar coin in 2000. But Americans hate coins and almost never use them—currently, $1 billion in unused dollar coins is languishing in storage—so putting a woman on one almost guarantees that her image becomes a burden and the butt of jokes. The $10 bill will be a distinct step forward, symbolically: if a woman appears on paper money, she will, unlike Sacagawea and Susan B. Anthony, actually be seen on a daily basis.

Whoever is chosen to appear on the $10 will be the first new portrait chosen to appear on U.S. money since Thomas Jefferson went on the $2 bill in 1976. So of course there is controversy, since one women must be chosen to buttress all American values and make a broad statement about American identity and history—at a time when the ideas of universally shared American values, identity and history seem both loaded and murky.

Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) supports redesigning the $10 to feature underground railroad leader and abolitionist Harriet Tubman. But her choice is controversial, and not for the reasons that might seem obvious. “The roots of capitalist American slavery are not just found in long shuttered tobacco and cotton plantations, but in the entire business structure of the modern US economy,” writes Guardian columnist Stephen W. Thrasher.

I happen to agree with Thrasher, especially after spending my summer researching and writing a novel about slavery, American capitalism and inherited wealth. The economic system of slavery was very profitable for slave owners, as well as for the huge industry of intermediaries who transported and sold slaves from plantation to plantation even after the international slave trade was outlawed in 1808. More importantly, anyone who profited from the cotton, tobacco or sugar industries—which were instrumental to the industrial revolution—also profited from slavery. As people of color continue to be on the losing side of American capitalism. It seems ironic put a crusader for racial justice on American money, which may well be the very root of American racial injustice.

During the Republican debate, Carly Fiorina refused to answer moderator Jake Tapper’s question, arguing that putting a woman on the $10 was a “meaningless gesture.” I agreed with her, for once. Until American laws catch up with the rest of the world and mandate paid parental leave, paid sick leave and affordable child care, making sure women are represented on American currency seems low on the list of national priorities.

Furthermore, try as I might, I couldn’t think of a single woman whose life completely sums up even my own version of American values—let alone everybody else’s. I even wrote down a short list of candidates: Alice Paul, Ida B. Wells, Rachel Carson, the Grimke sisters, Shirley Chisholm. But how could I pick just one when they all had such different legacies? And would it be possible to pick, say, Alice Paul, without making the choice seem like erasure? Could I pick Ida B. Wells without evoking tokenism, even if that evocation would be untrue?

That this discussion is so loaded is, still, a testament to the fact that symbols matter. There is a constant feedback loop between symbols and systems: symbols communicate the correct social order, and the social order creates symbols in its own image. One of easiest ways to influence people’s ideas about how the world is and how it should be is by changing how things are represented. Such an approach is an appealing first step to making real, material changes in policy. Perhaps, the thinking goes, if Americans saw a woman on their currency, they would push for the policies that would actually help women.

But it’s easy to mistake changing a symbol for changing a system. For instance, in Guatemala City, there are plans to build a new museum devoted to Mayan history and culture. The $60 million project is a worthy endeavor, but just thirty years ago, the Guatemalan government committed genocide against ethnic Maya. What’s more insulting: to live in a society that treats you unfairly whose symbols remind you of that fact, or to live in a society that treats you unfairly but whose symbols belie progress?

So here’s an idea. Why do we have to have people on our money at all? We should take a page from Norway, whose banknotes feature colorful, abstract designs. Then we can use the time we would spend arguing about who should be featured on them to making needed changes in American peoples’ lives. Maybe, like Norway, the United States could finally give all its citizens paid parental leave, paid sick leave and affordable childcare.

Images via Wikimedia Commons

Colette Shade is a writer living in Baltimore. Read more of her work here, or follow her on Twitter here.

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