NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — A Woman’s Place Is Right On The Money

Women and money ― bring the two up at your own risk! Once we get beyond Neanderthal jokes about gold diggers, we find ourselves amidst the fruitless 50-year debate over “equal pay for equal work.”

But while that remains unresolved, still a dream too far (and a whole ‘nother topic), our gender’s relationship to cash has smacked back into the headlines.

Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. Could an indignant tussle possibly be more absurd?

Only two women have graced American currency, both in the distant past: Pocahontas on a $20 note in the mid-1800s, portrayed in a style more akin to National Geographic than the National Portrait Gallery; and Martha Washington, who shared the $1 silver certificate with her husband during the same period. When the $1 bill was redesigned to feature George alone at the turn of the century, poof ― females disappeared for the next 120 years.

During Women’s History Month in 2015, a group of prominent women concluded that was long enough. They launched an online campaign, asking visitors to vote for one of 15 prominent women to replace the venerable face on the ten-dollar bill, Alexander Hamilton.

Nominees were chosen for their impact on society and the obstacles they faced along the way. Among the 13 other candidates were Red Cross founder Clara Barton; civil-rights heroine Rosa Parks; Margaret Sanger, who introduced the first birth-control clinic; and women’s suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony … a particularly poignant choice for the new bill’s introduction in 2020, the centennial of women’s right to vote.

Fearless abolitionist Harriet Tubman garnered the most votes, topping Eleanor Roosevelt, who came in a strong second.

Meanwhile, though, Treasury Secretary Hamilton’s fans ― spurred, no doubt, by his newfound status as a Broadway rap star ― successfully defended the $10 perch he’s held for 98 years. Back in the day, President Andrew Jackson was booted off the ten-spot to accommodate him. Old HIckory was then shoved onto the $20, displacing in turn Grover Cleveland. Distinguished mainly for being both the 22nd and 24th president ― Benjamin Harrison was in the middle ― Cleveland’s disappearance appears to have gone largely unmourned. Now Tubman will be the third to preside over that position.

Reaction to Tubman’s choice has been fast and, especially, furious. Trump quickly dubbed it “pure political correctness.” Ben Carson said she was great, but deserves a different spot ― perhaps on the near-invisible $2 bill, at the back of the currency bus. A Fox News female suggested creating a new denomination ― maybe $25? ― because, apparently, the math would be too hard if they created one worth, say, $17 and change.

Predictably, Internet trolls scoffed at an African-American face, much less a female one, defiling their filthy lucre. Their (anonymous) comments on blogs and news sites aren’t fit to repeat.

More interesting are the earnest comments of traditionalists professing their respect for history. Some assert that only presidents should grace our currency, “as they always have.” Their allegiance is admirable, but their grasp is weak. Neither Hamilton on the $10 nor Ben Franklin on the C-note served as president.

So we come down to practical matters. Why, really, are only XY genes expressed on our currency? In days of yore, only a scant few females were deemed both recognizable and worthy of honor. In addition to Pocahontas and Martha Washington, that leaves only one other standing, the mythical Lady Liberty … and, I suppose, we can’t be entirely sure of that screaming eagle’s gender.

The ladies have done better on coins than paper money, though you’re highly unlikely to find them jingling in your pocket. The oddly sized and much-disliked Susan B. Anthony dollar was minted from 1979 through 1981 at the behest of the coin-operated vending machine industry, but it never caught on. Sacagawea (that’s “Sakakawea” in the North Dakota tongue) has appeared on a redesigned dollar coin since 1999. Most recently, Helen Keller appeared in 2003 on the Alabama entry in the series of state-themed quarters.

Why are girls ahead on coins but not on cash? Turns out that it has much to do with who makes these decisions. Since 1862, the secretary of the Treasury has had near-complete authority over designing paper money. The current redesign of our bills had much more to do with thwarting counterfeiters than commemoration … until those online petitioners got into the act last year.

Coins, though, are within the grasp of Congress, and politics dictate. That was demonstrated in 2005, when they authorized a new series of presidential $1 coins. The North Dakota delegation fought mightily on behalf of their homegirl Sacagawea, passing a measure to ensure that at least one-third of all newly minted dollars would still bear her image. (Their success was short-lived. The Native American $1 Coin Act passed in 2007 dropped that requirement.)

Have you seen any of those presidential dollar coins, by the way? Most of us have not, though the first were minted nearly 10 years ago. Beginning with Honest George, the series has progressed through the list of dead presidents. This year the final trio ― Richard M. Nixon, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan ― is due for pressing.

And while we’re not likely to have gold in our pockets, either, there could be plenty of females at hand. First Spouse half-ounce gold coins have been issued along with the Presidential Dollars. Like the boy-bucks, these lady tokens have been issued in order of White House occupancy. That series, too, winds up this year with Pat Nixon, Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan.

When the Mint has reached presidents who served without women at their side, like widower Thomas Jefferson or bachelor James Buchanan, they’ve substituted Lady Liberty. Am I alone in reading this as editorial comment?

One way or the other, we can soon count on more female companionship in our wallets. In addition to Tubman on the front of the $20, selections of American heroines and heroes will add diversity to the reverse side of new cash. The freshened-up $10 ― with Hamilton intact on its face ― will celebrate the women’s suffrage movement on back with a collage of Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Alice Paul. Civil rights advocates Marian Anderson, Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King will grace the reverse side of new fivers.

Meanwhile, the death of Minnesota’s Prince has generated an intriguing alternative proposal, though it comes a bit too late for consideration. An Internet wag suggests putting his purple portrait on that $20, then changing its value to $19.99. We could call it “the bill formerly known as the $20.”

By 2020, when the new cash begins to circulate, this controversy will have probably run out of steam. After all, when is the last time you held onto your money long enough to look it in the eye?

But for those diehards who continue to reject the new design past the point of all that’s ridiculous, I offer a perfectly peaceable solution: Return all your scorned $20s in protest. Just forward  them to the Powers That Be in care of my home address, and I’ll take care of it for you.

One thought on “NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — A Woman’s Place Is Right On The Money”

  • Therese Tiedeman April 27, 2016 at 4:13 pm

    “Internet trolls” is so apt! I picture them lurking under some stinky bridge like in the Billy Goats Gruff story.


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