Let’s discuss putting a picture of a woman on the $20 bill. But, first: How many of you remember Ivy Baker Priest?
OK, nobody. Good thing I’m hard to discourage. But stick with me for a minute, and then we’ll talk about Harriet Tubman versus Andrew Jackson.
In the 1950s, Ivy Baker Priest was the U.S. treasurer. This is not to be confused with secretary of the Treasury, a job of far greater power. We have never had a woman running the Treasury Department, but the past 15 treasurers have been female. Try not to be diverted by that factoid. We have work to do.
The treasurer does get her signature on all our paper currency, and I remember as a child being very impressed when my mother pointed out Priest’s name on a dollar bill. It was, perhaps, the first time I realized a person of my gender could be in a position of public authority without being the queen of England.
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The message here is that what goes on our money has an impact. “It’s a reflection of the values in this country,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, of New Hampshire. As part of the current debate about putting a woman on one of the bills, she’s introduced legislation that would require the secretary of the Treasury to convene “a panel of citizens” to discuss the whole portrait issue.
“That’s how it was done in the 1920s when Andrew Jackson was put on the $20,” she said.
Ah, Andrew Jackson. The perfect target. Slaveowner who came to national renown as an Indian-killer. Who, as president, made hatred of the national bank his big issue, while showing a certain fondness for state banks owned by his cronies.
On the positive side, he really loved his wife.
The Treasury Department hasn’t changed a portrait since 1934, when it honored Woodrow Wilson, whose picture you will find on the extremely elusive $100,000 note. All of our paper money feature white men, at least half of them slaveowners.
A website called “Women on 20s” recently conducted a poll to find a woman to replace Jackson. It was a great educational tool.
But about the poll: Harriet Tubman won.
Pretty perfect. Replace the slaveowner with the escaped slave who returned to the South — again and again and again — to lead other slaves to freedom.
So, we’re all happy, right? Harriet Tubman for Andrew Jackson. Best trade ever.
Not so fast. We should have guessed it wouldn’t be simple when all we got from the Obama administration was the president’s “pretty good idea.”
Changing American paper currency turns out to be a huge ordeal. The main decision-maker is something called the Advanced Counterfeit Deterrence Steering Committee, with representatives from a whole bunch of government entities, including the Secret Service. “Whenever a decision is made, it’s not just done. It takes years of research before the process even gets remotely underway,” said Lydia Washington of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.
But the British switch their currency portraits all the time! (Jane Austen is about to supplant Charles Darwin on the 10-pound note.) Sure, the United States currency is a global currency. We should regard change as a serious matter. However, not an epic challenge of herculean proportions.
The government did start on a $10 bill redesign in 2013, and the process being what the process is, the effort has only just begun to twitch. The plan is to add a tactile feature that will allow blind people to identify the value of the currency.
On behalf of the blind, I have a question here: What good is being able to identify a $10 bill if you can’t identify a $1 or a $5 or a $20?
All in all, it’s clear we’ve got a lot of work to do. Maybe Ivy Baker Priest understood what a heavy lift change is when she said women didn’t care about having their pictures on money “as long as we get our hands on it.”
“Getting our hands on the money is equally important,” said Shaheen mildly. But, really, we can go for both.