In 2012 Barbara Howard had a simple idea: put a woman’s face on American money to commemorate the centennial anniversary of women’s suffrage in 2020. This year, in a matter of a few short months that idea has become a topic of national conversation. In fact, the grassroots campaign spearheaded by Howard and a small group of activists called Women on 20s has done the improbable: they convinced the government to change the face of American money. Well, sort of. The Treasury Department heard the calls for change, but it came up with its own version.
I spoke to Howard about the success of the campaign and what her organisation and other activists are planning next.
The campaign officially began in February when Women on 20s announced 15 candidates to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill. Besides elevating a female, Howard explained that the campaign was actively trying to get rid of Jackson, the nation’s seventh president.
Andrew Jackson’s legacy
Jackson’s administration took a hard line against Native Americans. In 1830 he passed the Indian Removal Act which resulted in the forced migration of Native Americans east of the Mississippi River. Tens of thousands died en route from exposure, disease and starvation in what we now call “The Trail of Tears”. The currency campaign put a spotlight on Jackson’s legacy.
“Andrew Jackson is a murderer and helped in a big way with the [near] extermination of my people,” Shay Horse, a native of the Chickasaw tribe, told me. “I would love for him to not be in sight at all.”
Online voting began on 1 March. The field was narrowed to four women over the five weeks that followed. “We weren’t sure how many people would vote. In the first few days the website did not have a lot of visitors,” explained Howard. “But soon people started sharing it on social media and writing about it and our web traffic exploded.”
Jeannine Booton, 35, of Boston, was one of many people excited by the online campaign. She voted for Harriet Tubman, an escaped slave famous for returning to slave territory to help free others. “To replace Jackson with someone like Tubman was a cause I wanted to get behind and it made sense to me. The full positioning — not just getting a female figure on currency, but also kicking off Jackson — is what made me not just vote but share the website on social media, discuss the campaign with family and friends and keep track of the results as they came in.”
“The campaign spread farther than we could have imagined,” Howard said.
Valerie Cooper, from Dallas, was studying for her doctorate halfway across the world, in Hong Kong, when the campaign started popping up on her social media. “I voted because it seems like such a simple and necessary idea,” Cooper told me. “It’s silly to think that old white men are the only ones who have shaped the country.”
The only woman’s portrait to ever appear on a bill was Martha Washington, the wife of the first American president. She graced the $1 silver certificate for a span of 13 years in the 1800s. No woman’s portrait has been featured since.
A second round of voting among the top four finishes began in April and finished five weeks later in May. More than 600,000 votes were cast and Harriet Tubman was the clear winner. Born into slavery, she escaped to freedom in 1849 when she was 27 years old. She then dedicated her life to crossing back into slave territory to free others. She was fundamental in establishing the network known as the Underground Railroad, which created safehouses and safe transport routes for escaped slaves travelling to free territory.
Tubman the freedom fighter
There was a lot of excitement once Tubman was chosen. “We want to replace the slave owner Andrew Jackson with the freed slave and freedom fighter Harriet Tubman,” Howard told me. “We want to rid ourselves of symbols of hate and replace them with hope.”
In June, a month after the online voting had finished, the Treasury Department announced that it would put a woman’s face on money in time for 2020. However, instead of replacing Jackson on the $20 bill with Tubman, the Treasury proposal is for a woman of their choosing to share the $10 bill with Alexander Hamilton.
Almost no one is happy with the Treasury’s plan and the debate about the future face of American money has gone mainstream. The controversy the Treasury Department sparked with its plan has generated more coverage than the campaign itself. Hillary Clinton, one of the favourites for next year’s presidential election, told CNN’s Brianna Keilar, that a woman sharing the $10 bill “sounds pretty second class to me”. Clinton — who voted for Tubman — also said that the $20 bill would be a more “appropriate” pick. The New York Times editorial board penned an essay on 4 July, Independence Day, urging the Treasury to follow the will of the campaign and put Tubman on the $20.
Enter the New 10
Popular comedy show, This Week Tonight with Jon Oliver, produced a long segment after the Treasury announcement. Oliver concludes by telling his audience: “This is the perfect embodiment of the women’s rights movement: Women ask for something they’ve earned, a bunch of men get together and talk about it and then they give her half and ask her to share it.”
The Treasury department has created a website, The New 10, and in a nod to Women on 20s, has asked for suggestions from the public. Unlike the grassroots campaign, though, all suggestions are private and the final decision will be made by one person, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew.
Women on 20s is in contact with the Treasury Department and still pushing hard for its original plan though. “Our position is that Harriet Tubman belongs on the $20 bill,” Howard told me.
“If we don’t get further encouragement that something can be done [about the 20] then we will encourage the public to start taking action. We are already coordinating a response with Native American groups.”
In a strange historical coincidence, this is not the first time Tubman and Jackson have faced off. When the Civil War began in 1861, Tubman volunteered as a spy for the Union and returned to slave territory to gather intelligence. Jacksonville, Florida — a city named after Andrew Jackson — was captured by Union troops after Tubman provided key intelligence on the city.
This article first appeared in Contributoria. It was the cover story for their August 2015 issue.