The very short, sad history of women on American money


The history of American currency is a little weird and filled with all sorts of fun facts. Like this one:


Earlier today, it was reported that Treasury Secretary Jack Lew would be making some U.S. currency history himself by announcing an impending change to the front of the $20 bill: they're replacing Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman. As weirdly serendipitous as this announcement is, it serves as a reminder that very few women have been featured on American currency since the Treasury started printing money in 1789.

How'd we get to this point with Tubman? In 2014, President Obama was asked in a letter written by a child why there were no women on American money and he thought "that's a pretty good idea." From there, the Women on 20s movement sprouted up and started picking up steam. Congress even got involved with speeches in the House and bills put forth in the Senate. Then the Treasury announced a woman would soon be featured on the $10 bill. Then Hamilton won a Pulitzer and suddenly the idea that Andrew Jackson should be the American figure removed from our money became very attractive.

Should the redesigned note become a reality, the Tubman Twenty will join a very, very short list of American currency to feature women. It'd be just the fifth time, actually.

The first, and so far only, instance of the U.S. issuing paper money that featured a woman solo was in 1886 and showed, naturally, Martha Washington.


The Washington note was a silver certificate and it appeared six years after the first Washington dollar bills rolled out. But, it could only be exchanged for silver from the Treasury. The portrait of Washington used on the certificate is now in the National Portrait Gallery in the Smithsonian Institution. The bills were discontinued in 1957.


Pocahontas appeared on a $20 bill from 1865 until 1869, but only as part of a group.


Fast-forward 22 years after the Washington silver certificates disappeared to 1979, and Jimmy Carter signed the Susan B. Anthony Dollar Coin Act into law.


The U.S. Mint produced some 888,842,452 of these coins before ceasing production in 1999 to make way for a golden coin that was not so easily confused with the quarter coin. Which brings us to Sacajawea.


The Sacajawea dollar came after three years of committees voting, and it was used in public in March 2000. It never really took off, was immediately met with derision for not staying shiny forever, and was taken out of circulation in 2011, following a brief return after having previously been taken out of circulation from 2002 to 2008. On top of that, in 2007 the Presidential $1 Coin program kicked off, releasing a limited-edition $1 coin for each president, each one a white man—2016 is the last year of the program and they've only gotten to Reagan (but also, by law, living people can't be featured on U.S. currency).

But the trouble with Sacajawea and Susan B. Anthony being relegated to coins is that $1 coins never took off in the U.S. like they have elsewhere around the world (because the U.S. keeps issuing $1 bills) and there are over $1 billion in single-dollar coins in storage somewhere in the Federal Reserve System. People actually use $20 bills! This Harriet Tubman news is a pretty big deal.


The new $20 bill would also join a small cadre of currencies from around the world that already feature women.

Corazon Aquino, the first female president of the Philippines is featured on a note.


The reverse side of Turkey's 50-lira note showcases early 1900s novelist and women’s rights activist Fatma Aliye Topuz—an honor since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the country's founding father, is on the front. It's about time America started being a little more like Turkey.

This image was lost some time after publication.

Mexico's 500-peso note has Frida Kahlo on the reverse with her husband Diego Rivera on the front. Argentina has an Eva Peron bill, several countries with British ties honor Queen Elizabeth with their money, and there are many more. America can now join these countries by including a woman on paper money for the first time in close to 150 years and make up for putting women on little-used coins since—and maybe even beat Canada's Bae-in-Chief at his own game.


You can learn more about women in money throughout history at the American Museum of Natural History's website.

UPDATE: That was fast. Harriet Tubman is set to be joined by several other prominent historical American women. The new $5 bill will feature Martin Luther King Jr. on the front, and Eleanor Roosevelt and Marian Anderson, "a singer who performed on the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 after the Daughters of the American Revolution blocked her from singing at the Constitution Hall."


The new $10 bill will retain Alexander Hamilton and honor heroes of the women's suffrage movement on the back including: Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott.

You can read more about each woman here.

David Matthews operates the Wayback Machine on—hop on. Got a tip? Email him:

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