Taking Women Seriously: Putting a Woman on U.S. Currency

Women on 20s campaignWomen on 20s campaign. (Photo: twitter.com/SenatorShaheen)

Asked to name a woman they would put on America’s currency, four Republican candidates for the presidency of this nation came up with their wives, their mothers, and foreigners Margaret Thatcher and Mother Theresa. Six candidates did manage to name prominent American women, but they were women who were only marginally involved in America’s political system, if they were involved in it at all. Rosa Parks (named by Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump) was an icon of the Civil Rights Movement because her refusal to move to the segregated section of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 symbolized the point at which African Americans said “enough” to racial segregation. Susan B. Anthony (named by Rand Paul) has, of course, already been on a coin. She was an abolitionist who, with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, became a key organizer in the fight for women’s rights in the 1840s. Abigail Adams (Chris Christie’s choice) was an early critic of women’s exclusion from the broad rights afforded by the Founding Fathers only to men. She was not, herself, much in the public sphere; we know her from her letters to her famous husband, John Adams. Clara Barton (named by Scott Walker) organized the American Red Cross after her work as the leader of the nursing corps during the Civil War. Carla Fiorina rejected the idea that women should be represented on a bill because, she says, “women are not a special-interest group.” (Does that mean white men, who dominate our money, are?)

This stunning display of ignorance about the role of women in the creation of our country proves that we desperately need women – not just a woman – on our currency. More significantly, the deplorable quality of debate on last night’s stage reveals just why this issue is not about special interests, but rather is about the very survival of this nation.

Traditionally, the images on our currency reinforce the central principles of America as a political entity. That’s why our money has always featured famous presidents, for example. Who is on them changes, but right now, Washington is on the $1 bill, Jefferson on the $2, Lincoln on the $5, Jackson on the $20, and Grant on the $50. It also features men who were significant in the construction of the nation. Alexander Hamilton, who created the financial system that kept the tottering early republic viable, is on the $10. Benjamin Franklin, who was crucial in swinging votes behind the Constitution, graces the $100. When the Treasury department created our first national money during the American Civil War, its leaders deliberately chose individuals that represented the American government, which was then, quite literally, under attack. As Americans carried these pictures in their wallets, they would come to identify with the nation as a political entity that required their participation and support.

Today, we badly need this sort of reinforcement of the American political identity. The cartoonish nature of today’s political debate proves how much we need people to take politics and the American government seriously again. And we need women on our money because women helped to craft our nation as a political entity.

Here are ten excellent female candidates to appear on American money.

Mercy Otis Warren (1728-1814)

Warren was a political writer who urged American colonists to revolt against England to protect their political liberties and advised many of the Founding Fathers, including John Adams, Samuel Adams, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson. After the Revolution, she insisted that the U.S. Constitution must contain a bill of rights. John Adams said of Warren, “God Almighty has entrusted her with the Powers for the good of the World, which, in the cause of his Providence, he bestows on few of the human race…. Instead of being a fault to use them, it would be criminal to neglect them.”

Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910)

Author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” that inspired government troops during the Civil War, Howe established the Woman’s Journal in 1870. The carnage of the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War so horrified her that she organized a “Mothers’ Day” to inspire mothers to refuse to let their sons and husbands participate in war. In her later years, frustrated by men’s tendency to solve problems with violence, as well as by her abusive husband’s control of her money and her children, she became a key crusader for female suffrage.

Jane Addams (1860-1935)

Born in rural Illinois, Addams worried about the disintegration of American society in industrializing cities. She set up Hull House in Chicago to stitch elites and immigrants together culturally, but quickly discovered that the conditions of urban America required political activism. She challenged the local political machine that collected public contracts without providing services. She fought for domestic welfare legislation, then opposed American Imperialism. In the early twentieth century, she worked for world peace, while more practically fighting for the abolition of poison gas in warfare.

Ida B. Wells (1862-1931)

Born a slave in Mississippi during the Civil War, Wells insisted on keeping her five siblings after their parents’ deaths in 1878. Living in Tennessee in 1884, Wells challenged the Supreme Court’s recent overturning of the 1875 Civil Rights Act when she refused to move to a segregated railroad car. She lost her case, but took her principles into newspaper work, where she led America’s anti-lynching movement for the rest of her life.

Frances Perkins (1880-1965)

Perkins had worked with Jane Addams and became politically involved after witnessing the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist tragedy in which 146 garment workers died after their employer locked the factory’s exit doors to keep them at their machines. She worked her way up through New York’s state government, where her work came to the attention of New York governor Franklin D. Roosevelt. He appointed her to his national administration, making her the first female member of the U.S. Cabinet. Serving from 1933 to 1945, she was the nation’s longest serving Secretary of Labor. She was key to implementing New Deal programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Public Works Administration, and the National Industrial Recovery Act. She established the nation’s first national minimum wage and the forty-hour work week.

Margaret Chase Smith (1897-1995)

A schoolteacher and journalist from Skowhegan, Maine, Smith took to politics when she married. She served on the Maine Republican Committee from 1930 to 1939, and went to Washington as her husband’s secretary when he was elected to Congress in 1937. When he died in 1940, voters elected her to replace him. They reelected her in her own right in 1942, and she served in the House of Representatives until 1949, when voters sent her to the Senate, making her the first woman to serve in both houses. Less than a year into her Senate career, she stood on the floor of Congress and called out Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy for his incendiary attacks on opponents. “I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the four horseman of calumny — fear, ignorance, bigotry, and smear,” she declared. Only six men were willing to sign her “Declaration of Conscience.” It remains a powerful defense of American principles in the face of unprincipled partisanship. She served in the Senate from 1949-1973.

Wilma Mankiller (1945-2010)

Mankiller was the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation, serving from 1985-1995. Originally from Oklahoma, Mankiller’s family was relocated by the U.S. government to San Francisco during WWII after the U.S. Army took their land by eminent domain. Mankiller became involved in Indian Rights activism in the 1960s, and took part in the 1969 occupation of Alcatraz Island. She moved back to Oklahoma in 1977, and went to work for the Cherokee Nation. First elected deputy chief in 1983, she rose to the position of principle chief in 1985 and was elected in her own right two years later. She focused on tribal economic development, education, and improving relations with the federal government.

Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977)

Born in Mississippi, the deeply religious Hamer spent her childhood picking cotton. Her education was rudimentary, but she nonetheless learned to read and write. In the 1950s, she began to advocate for voting rights for African Americans; in 1962, she joined with SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) to register voters. Her employer immediately fired her. In 1963, Hamer was beaten almost to death in police custody for her voting rights work. The next year, afraid of the effect her testimony at the Democratic National Committee would have on that year’s elections, Democratic Party leaders tried to negotiate with Hamer and her colleagues to keep them from challenging Mississippi’s all-white delegation to the convention. She refused. She later said of her fight for voting rights for all Americans, “what was the point of being scared? The only thing they could do was kill me, and it kinda seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time since I could remember.”

Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005)

In 1968, Chisholm was the first African American woman elected to Congress, where she represented the people of New York’s 12th Congressional District from 1969-1983. Interested in child welfare and early education, Chisholm’s political fights focused on issues of family welfare. She played a crucial role in creating WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children). Chisholm staffed her office with women. She was also a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, and the National Women’s Political Caucus.

Geraldine Ferraro (1935-2011)

The child of a first-generation Italian American and an Italian immigrant, Ferraro trained as a lawyer, then moved quickly up the ranks in government. As a Queen’s County District Attorney, she prosecuted cases of domestic violence, child abuse, and sex crimes. Elected to Congress in 1978, she focused on equal pay for women and on ending discrimination against women in the workforce. She was a leader in the Democratic Caucus, and served in the House from 1979 to 1985. In 1984, Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale tapped her to become his running mate, making her the first woman nominated on a major party ticket. Defeated twice for a Senate seat, Ferraro worked as U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights from 1993-1996.

Each of these women represents the American government at its best. Putting a few of them on our currency would reinforce the idea that politics matters, and that women are crucial to the nation’s story. Putting women on our currency is not about kowtowing to a special interest. It’s about taking both politics and women seriously.

About the Author

Heather Cox Richardson

Historian. Author. Professor. Budding Curmudgeon. Heather Cox Richardson studies the contrast between image and reality in America, especially in politics.

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    1. Limited the list to ten, and figured people were already talking about her so I’d focus on others. But you’re absolutely right: this is only a start. The low-hanging fruit.

  1. This is a good list, but since this is a history site, I have to take issue with your statement that “our money has always featured famous presidents.” The history of paper money is more complicated (most Americans did not trust “greenbacks” until the 20th century), but for coins, this only began in 1909, when Abraham Lincoln appeared on the penny. Most coins featured a woman – a mythologized figure of Liberty – a tradition that did not end until 1947. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, having presidents on currency was considered not in keeping with the beliefs of a republic. And indeed, there is something disquieting and monarchical about the need to enshrine and mythologize American leaders by putting them on money. It creates an ideal of history in which the “great man” (almost always a man) embodies the country. I’m not saying we should return to having Liberty on the currency, but we should be aware that there are a lot of different ways to make statements about national values.

    1. Great comment, Lawrence.

      This was a stupid oversight that you are absolutely right to point out. I was referring only to our national PAPER money, creating first during the American Civil War, and with that in the front of my mind I missed the obvious. The whole coin thing is entirely different and features very different images. It’s actually cool how Lady Liberty changes over time.

      When the country did turn to paper money, the Lincoln administration debated at length what to put on the bills, and why– I wrote on this in my first book– and were very deliberate about their choices of leading American politicians. We could certainly dump that tradition, but I actually like the idea of continuing it right now at least, at a time when so many Americans have so little love for what is actually the stunning accomplishment of figuring out how to govern– messily, imperfectly, for sure, but still a huge accomplishment– of such a vast country of such different people. I’d just like to make it clear that our political story is not just about old white men. (Frances Perkins would probably be my choice to replace Jackson.)

      To your point of the problems of having political figures on our money, here’s a funny story about it: It was well known that Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase desperately wanted to be president. When it came time to put faces on the currency, he put President Lincoln on the $5 and his own face on the $1, arguing that this was a reflection of the fact that Lincoln was more important than he was. But, of course, what he was really up to was making sure that everyone would know exactly who Chase was in the next presidential election– far more folks would handle ones than fives. Under pressure, he took his face off the $1, and he never became president. Still he got his banknote. In the early twentieth century, he was for a number of years the face on the $10,000. (Someone at Treasury must have had a sense of humor.)

      1. That’s a great story about Chase. They say every Senator looks in the mirror and sees a future President; it seems Treasury Secretaries once looked at the currency and saw future Presidents.

        All your choices are excellent here. I especially like the idea of putting Frances Perkins on the $20, both because she was an important figure in the Roosevelt administration and because it’s odd that there are no New Dealers on any Federal Reserve notes. Given the importance of New Deal reforms to the modern economy, Perkins would be a doubly appropriate choice. No Republican could be expected to agree, of course, for political reasons, not just ignorance.

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