Head down to the ATM to pull out some cash and the $20 bill is likely the only denomination you'll be able to get. It's the bill tellers automatically reach for when you cash checks or make withdrawals, and it's one of the most widely circulated pieces of U.S. currency after the $100 bill. Unfortunately, it and all the rest of paper bills in the US are covered in dead white guys.
Women on 20s aims to change that, arguing that: "A woman's place is on the money." In an interview with Business Insider, the organization's founder, Barbara Howard, said that she initiated the movement after being frustrated that she couldn't show her daughter any women on U.S. bills — despite the large number of amazing and important women in U.S. history who deserve prominence in our wallets and daily appearances as role models for young girls all over the country. (Especially those getting $20s in their allowances.)
They're aiming to change the face of the bill by 2020, in time for the commemoration of the 19th Amendment, which granted many (though not all) women the right to vote. And they're targeting the $20 for a specific reason. It's not just the bill with the widest circulation, but one that specifically includes a president who's infamous for his militantly aggressive campaigns against indigenous Americans, including the Trail of Tears. His history as an important political figure in the American landscape has a great deal to do with stolen land and suffering.
All of this seems pretty reasonable, and it's in fact totally reasonable to replace faces on money: There are some restrictions, and you can't mess around with the dollar bill, but as for the rest, it's open season. We've had the same dead white guys (people have to be deceased for at least two years before they can be considered for inclusion) on our money since 1929. Most of the men commemorated are former presidents, but there's no rule requiring that either, and some (Benjamin Franklin, for example) weren't presidents, but rather prominent political figures.
Women have been pushed to the back corridors of history, but they shouldn't be left invisible. By making them prominent in everyone's wallets, the U.S. will be taking a huge step forward, joining a growing number of other nations that are audacious enough to allow women to join the banking system.
Through a voting system, they've narrowed the list of potentials down to four candidates, and one thing that's startling (in the best possible way) is that only one is white: Eleanor Roosevelt. The heavy representation of women of color — Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks are also under consideration, along with Wilma Mankiller, who was added to the list in recognition of Jackson's loaded and troubling history — is fantastic, and a sign that we're shifting our notions of what history looks like. When people bother to acknowledge women in history at all, there's often a heavy slant to white women, like Susan B. Anthony, with nary a mention of the myriad women of color who played key roles in U.S. history and culture.
Yes, Sacajawea made her way onto the $1 coin, but it's not circulating widely and almost no one uses it. $1 coins seem like little more than a frustrating novelty these days: most change machines don't accept them; they're heavy; the dollar is such a small unit of currency that you can't really use them anywhere; and many stores don't have space in their registers to accommodate them. If anything, sticking her on the $1 coin is kind of a dismissive, slapdash nod to her role in history.
Once their second round voting is done, Women on 20s will be taking a petition to the White House and asking President Obama to put his money where his mouth is when it comes to women on currency. They're already attracting backing from people like Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who just introduced legislation to the same effect — though it would work differently, with a panel of citizens to advise the Treasury on an appropriate replacement.
I'm excited about the thought of opening the door to changes when it comes to who I keep in my wallet, but I'm nervous. In 2013, the Bank of England indicated that it would be putting Jane Austen on the ten pound note, following its own currency mandates of figures who are considered household names that made important contributions to British history and are generally uncontroversial. That certainly holds true for Austen, who's a beloved and widely-known name all over the world.
The agency also indicated that it would be reviewing and setting standards to ensure a greater degree of representation on currency, ensuring that English bills didn't inevitably include a very narrow range of historical figures. So far, so good, thought supporters of more women on currency and many politicians.
That's when things got ugly, though. First, people complained about the inclusion of Austen herself, right down to fussing over the quote used on the bill. In addition to whining about the horrors of having a woman on U.K. currency, though, people also, of course, went at Caroline Criado-Perez, the feminist, journalist, and organizer who had pushed so hard to ensure that women play a prominent role on U.K. currency. Rape, death, and bomb threats rolled in.
An argument over a banknote shouldn't have attracted this level of controversy, but it did. When I think about a similar attempt in the U.S., I quail. I worry about the women organizing this campaign and prominent supporters in a country where just writing about the representation of women in gaming leads to being slammed with an endless series of threats and attacks so severe that women are forced out of their homes and forced to request tightened security at the events they attend.
I worry that just suggesting that we change up the faces of U.S. currency will result in an ugly and horrific backlash because of the deeply entrenched misogyny in the United States. Women should be on money now more than ever, staunchly reminding misogynists the world over that women matter, that women have value, that women should have equal voices and should be able to play a role in society without feeling like they're going to be raped, attacked, or murdered for existing.
We need a woman on the $20 — and other bills, too — because the patriarchal structure on our money is a daily reminder and reinforcement of the patriarchal structure of our society. I voted — and I hope you do, too.
Photo credits: Eleanor Roosevelt (1995), Cliff, Flickr; New Twenty Dollar Bill, Jared and Corin, Flickr; Harriet Tubman, H. Seymour Squyer, National Portrait Gallery; Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ebony Magazine, National Archives.