© Alex Wong/Getty Images An uncut sheet of the $10 bill is seen on March 2, 2006, in Washington, DC.
Will it be Susan B. Anthony or Harriet Tubman? Eleanor Roosevelt or Rosa Parks? Or another important woman from American history?
These will be among the names the nation ponders after the Obama administration’s announcement late Wednesday that a woman will be featured on the $10 bill, the first time in well over a century that a female portrait will grace the United States’ paper money.
The redesigned bill will be unveiled in 2020 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the right of women to vote. The Treasury Department is launching a massive public campaign to solicit suggestions through social media and town halls for what the bill should look like and who should be on it. The only requirements for candidacy are that the woman be deceased and embody the theme of the bill’s new look: “Democracy.”
“America’s currency makes a statement about who we are and what we stand for as a nation,” said Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, who has the authority to make the decision.
The debate over who should be the face of the new $10 bill could become part of a wider conversation about the social and economic progress of women. Selecting just one person for such a symbolic role may involve trade-offs, forcing officials to decide which major milestone in American history to highlight.
As it proceeds, the Treasury Department could also face backlash over its decision to kick off the current face of the $10 bill, Alexander Hamilton, the country’s first secretary of the treasury, who advocated for a national currency. As discussion over placing a woman to appear on U.S. currency began to heat up this year, some had suggested replacing Andrew Jackson, the controversial seventh president, who is featured on the $20 bill.
Though the Founding Fathers have long dominated the dollar, the only portrait actually required by law is that of George Washington on the $1 bill. The last time a woman was featured was in the late 1800s, when Martha Washington appeared on the silver-dollar certificate.
Other attempts to incorporate images of women into the nation’s currency have failed to take off. Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea had brief sojourns on the $1 coin before the U.S. Mint stopped making them, because of a lack of popularity. Pocahontas was part of a group portrait on a bill circulated in the mid-19th century.
“Young girls across this country will soon be able to see an inspiring woman on the ten dollar bill who helped shape our country into what is today and know that they too can grow up and do something great for their country,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who introduced a bill in April to get a female face onto American currency, said in a statement. “Make no mistake, this is a historic announcement and a big step forward.”
Her legislation was a response to a movement calling for an overhaul of the $20 bill. A campaign called “Women on 20s” petitioned the White House this spring to oust Jackson from the denomination.
Replacing him with a woman was only part of the reason for targeting the $20. The group also objected to Jackson’s authorization and enforcement of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which forced several Native American tribes to give up their land to white farmers and move to what is now Oklahoma. Jackson was also skeptical of paper money, preferring to use gold or silver.
The Women on 20s campaign went viral, and more than 600,000 people voted in an online poll for a new image. Out of a list of 15 women suggested by the group, Tubman emerged as the top choice.
“It’s been our goal from the beginning to see the face of a woman on our paper currency,” Susan Ades Stone, the group’s executive director, said in a phone interview. “So naturally I’m excited to hear that our mission will be accomplished.”
She said she did not mind that Jackson is staying on the $20 bill. Putting a woman on the $10 bill appears to be the quickest solution, she said.
Lew said the timing of the Treasury Department’s announcement was a “happy coincidence.” The $10 bill was already in line for a redesign, he said, and it will also incorporate new security features. He also left open the possibility that Hamilton could appear on currency in some form.
The $10 bill is a staple of American’s wallets, with nearly 2 billion in circulation. Still, the $20 bill is vastly more popular: 8 billion are in circulation, and they last almost twice as long.
“I can’t claim that we gave them the idea,” Ades Stone said. But, she added, “I do believe that their decision to go to the public for input is the result of the public response to our campaign.”
Even President Obama — father to two daughters, it should be noted — has weighed in. During a speech in Kansas City, Mo., in July, he said he had received a letter from a 9-year-old girl asking him why there were no women on American money.
“I think there should be more women on a Dollar/coin for the United States becuas if there where no woman there wouldnt be men,” wrote Sofia (with a few misspellings).
Obama responded by calling her suggestion “a pretty good idea.”