The Only Two Women on American Banknotes...So Far

Cristen Conger

Harriet Tubman imagined on the $20 bill. Via CBSSFBayArea

Update: On April 20, 2016, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew announced in a written statement that America's First Treasury Secretary, Alex Ham-town, will stay in place thanks in large part to the wild popularity of the Broadway smash "Hamilton." Instead, slave-owning, Trail-of-Tears-masterminding Andrew Jackson is getting booted to the back of the $20 bill. Underground Railroad conductor, Civil War spy, abolitionist and suffragist Harriet Tubman will take his place. This post has been edited to reflect these developments.

Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton no long has to share the spotlight with one woman on the $10 bill. Now, Mr. Ten Dollars will have to contend with a whole gaggle of suffragists on the back of the bill: Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and Sojourner Truth. The bigger news, however, is that Native American hater and seventh U.S. President Andrew Jackson will be replaced with bona fide badass Harriet Tubman; he and his cravat will still reside on the bill's back.

The fiver is also getting a facelift. Its forthcoming bill will commemorate Marian Anderson's 1939 performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let her perform in Constitution Hall that only permitted whites. It will also honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream Speech" delivered on those same steps in 1963. Our wallets will have to wait until 2020 at the earliest for its new occupants.

In June 2015, the Treasure announced its plan to commemorate the centennial of women's suffrage by featuring a women on the $10 note. The news followed a social media-rousing campaign from the non-profit Women on 20s to swap out slave-owning President Andrew Jackson with an American historical heroine. In response to Women on 20s grassroots initiative, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D.-N.H.) introduced a bill for the U.S. Treasury to committee getting a woman on a greenback already.

While 52 men have decorated American banknotes, [Harriet Tubman] will be only the third woman to receive the honor. In 1886, Martha Washington became the first. Six years after her husband debuted on the $1 bill, Martha graced a silver dollar certificate. She then reappeared a decade later alongside George on another special edition silver dollar certificate. Numismatic legend also maintains Martha even donated some silverware to be melted down and made some of the earliest U.S. currency called half disme, so perhaps her portrait was literally payback.

In 1875, Matoaka, aka Pocahontas, became the second. Fittingly for the Women on 20s campaign, she appeared on the back of the $20 national banknote. But her presence doesn't exactly symbolize female achievement or perseverance so much as Native American erasure, as the portrait depicts her Christian baptism.

The American government's historic abuse and tokenism of people of color also complicates the U.S. Treasury's choice for placing Tubman on the twenty. When Rosa Park and she were circulated as leading contenders, some argued their face on such a potent a symbol of American capitalism would ultimately dishonor their civil rights legacies. Born into slavery, Tubman dedicated her life to freeing others from the most gruesome byproduct of that economic system. Not to mention she died penniless.

But it was Tubman's contemporary significance that profoundly impressed Secretary Lew. "I've been particularly struck by the many comments and reactions from children, for whom Harriet Tubman is not just a historical figure, but a role model for leadership and participation in our democracy," Lew said in the currency announcement. "Her incredible story of courage and commitment to equality embody the ideals and democracy that our nation celebrates and we'll continue to value her legacy by honoring on our currency."

Still, considering how American women today continue to fight for things like reproductive rights, adequate maternity leave and equal pay for equal work, its celebration ought to be cautious. The kind of racial and gender equality the iconic abolitionist and suffragist fought for can't be bought with once-in-a-centennial recognition.

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