As originally appeared in the New York Times and written by author Gail Collins on March 20, 2015
A Woman’s Place Is on the $20
The only woman who has ever shown up on American paper currency — not counting Lady Liberty — is Martha Washington, who starred on an 1886 silver certificate. The fact that it was Martha adds insult to injury. She was an excellent first lady, but her exceptional fame is tied to the ancient idea that the greatest women were simply the ones married to the greatest men. (An alternative theory was that the greatest women were the mothers of the greatest men, and George Washington’s mother was equally celebrated, even though her son found her extremely irritating.)
Now, a website called “Women on 20s” has posted biographies of 15 notable women in American history and invited visitors to vote for a female face to put in Jackson’s place. The goal is to get the job done by the anniversary of women’s suffrage in 2020.
“Oh, my gosh! We’re just going crazy here,” said Susan Ades Stone, who has been running the project along with Barbara Ortiz Howard, a New York businesswoman. Things do sound satisfyingly hectic. The vote total recently passed 100,000; the overstressed website has gotten balky; and Stone, a journalist, has been on the phone so incessantly her husband has temporarily left home.
Amazing this idea hasn’t come up sooner. “Australians have a man on one side of each note and a woman on the other,” said Matthew Wittmann of the American Numismatic Society. “It’s pretty remarkable we can’t find a woman for any denomination.”
The U.S. Treasury hasn’t changed the faces on the bills since 1929, when Andrew Jackson elbowed out Grover Cleveland on the $20. Why, you may be asking yourself, did they pick Jackson? And why was Grover Cleveland there to begin with? Nobody seems to know.
Among the bills that are circulating now, the featured faces are all founding fathers (Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin) plus Jackson, Lincoln and Ulysses Grant, who graces the $50 bill. “Women on 20s” picked Jackson to depose mainly because of his horrific history with Native Americans, although there’s also the rather blissful note that Jackson disapproved of paper currency.
The nominees for replacements were chosen from a list of 100 women by jurists who were asked to consider both achievement and obstacles overcome. That tends to weigh the choices toward political warriors — like Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Sanger — rather than artists or athletes.
Recently The Times’s Room for Debate let experts name their favorites. Gloria Steinem picked Sojourner Truth, the escaped slave turned abolitionist orator. “I’m not sure Sojourner Truth would want to be on the $20 bill, but I would like her to be better known — by any means necessary,” she said.
Actually, I’d sort of love to see Gloria Steinem on a $20 bill, but you aren’t eligible to star on American currency until you’re dead. Also, she has mixed feelings about how much of an honor it is to appear on money. “For a while I thought we should just put the Koch brothers on and be done with it,” she said over the phone Friday.
But this isn’t the New Hampshire primary. It’s more like a national post-graduate course in women’s history. One of the best parts about the “Women on 20s” process is that it gives you a chance to complain about people who aren’t in the final 15. Matthew Wittmann thinks Amelia Earhart might be a good contender. Steinem wanted a Native American, or in her words, “a woman who was here before all those bonkers, hierarchical, monotheistic, Europeans arrived.”
The Native American issue looms large when it comes to replacing Jackson, who sent the Cherokee Nation on the Trail of Tears. Lately, Stone said, she and Howard have decided that when they announce their three top vote-getters and ask people to pick a winner, they’re going to add a fourth option: Wilma Mankiller, the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation. (“People felt it would be poetic justice.”)
If I could add a nominee it might be Angelina Grimke, the great abolitionist orator. Or Sybil Ludington, who rode through New York one night in 1777 warning her countrymen the British were coming. (Just like Paul Revere, except Sybil was 16, and rode twice as far.) Or Margaret Brent, who used her business acumen to save the colony of Maryland from being destroyed by mercenary soldiers in 1647.
Or maybe Elizabeth Jennings, the black New Yorker who sued the trolley company that tossed her off a whites-only car in 1854 — a court action that led to the desegregation of mass transit in the city 100 years before Rosa Parks.
But then, of course, you don’t want to pass up Rosa Parks. There are thousands of possibilities. Nominate among yourselves.