It is one thing to have a good or great idea and quite another to see it become a reality. This past week, our dream to have women honored alongside men on our paper currency came into sharp focus when the Treasury Department announced its plans to feature women on not just one, but three of our bills. But until our wallets are filled with those inspiring female images, that dream will not be completely fulfilled. So we need to harness this victory and make sure promises to fast-track the currency overhaul are kept.
As much as we in the U.S. like to think of ourselves as innovators, we often get stuck in our way of thinking. The fact that since 1928 there have been no changes in the white, masculine look of our currency is case in point. When I founded Women On 20s, I was determined not to be intimidated by inertia and bureaucracy. Still, it was a tall order for a tiny organization of two women and friends who pitched in when they could.
My colleague, Susan Ades Stone, and I went to work, coming up with the best plan we could think of to capture the public’s attention and support. Without the benefit of funding for marketing and advertising, we put our faith in social media to spread our message. And when we launched at the start of Women’s History Month last year, the campaign took off like a rocket. More than a half-million people made their voices heard by participating in a 10-week-long voting period covered widely by the press nationally and internationally.
Media outlets liked our story. One prominent columnist, Gail Collins of the NY Times wrote, “Finally a story that is not depressing.” Within a month of announcing that Harriet Tubman was the choice of our voters to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, Treasury announced that it had a plan in the works to feature a woman on the $10 bill. This was not what we had hoped for, as that bill is used much less than the $20. But that wasn’t all. A woman was going to have to share the bill with Alexander Hamilton, while allowing Andrew Jackson to remain on the $20. Seemed like a one bill fits all solution, not a bill of our own. Many others shared the concerns we expressed and suddenly a 10-month national debate was on. One vocal opponent of Treasury’s plan was Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creative genius of the show “Hamilton,” who took the bright lights of Broadway right to the White House to make the case for keeping his hero on the $10. Suddenly, it looked like women might get shunted to the back of the bill.
How could the U.S. lag behind the rest of the world, we argued, pointing to so many other countries that have women on their currency: Colombia has Policarpa Salavarrieta, Mexico has Frida Kahlo, Argentina, Eva Perón and Spain had Rosalía de Castro in the peseta, among other Spanish and Latin American countries.
So after so many twists and turns, it was exhilarating to hear last week’s announcement that we’ll have designs for three new bills, with Harriet Tubman front and center on the $20, in time to celebrate the 100th anniversary in 2020 of women winning the right to vote in the United States.
So now, we are looking for some further and continued assurances that our government will also speed its process for putting these bills into circulation. These are important promises to keep to women and the public that cannot be forgotten even if new administrations with different viewpoints take office.
The $5 and $10 will retain Lincoln’s and Hamilton’s portraits respectively. On the reverse of the $5 will include civil and human rights legends, and the $10 will feature a mural of the women who fought for women’s right to vote. This mural was one of our suggestions. But the release of the Tubman twenty is what everyone is really waiting for. Otherwise with women only on the backs of bills, it will appear that women are taking a back seat to men, having to wait yet again for our turn to be recognized.
I therefore pledge to continue to work until my dream is my reality and I’m holding a Tubman $20 in my hand. By honoring the great freedom fighter, we signal the evolution from talking the talk to walking the walk in the name of freedom. We just cannot do that quickly enough.
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