Representation, Currency, and Generation Z
How the Tubman $20 Bill Became a New Front in the American Culture Wars
Last week, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin announced that the Treasury Department will not unveil a redesigned twenty-dollar bill replacing Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman on it while Trump still resides in the White House. When the Trump administration delayed the plan, new battle lines were drawn in our ongoing debate over representation in America. The historical context of Tubman and Jackson helps explain how the Tubman twenty-dollar bill delay fits into the ongoing partisan battles in Washington. However, for my students, seeing a change in who appears on American currency goes beyond the political; it is also personal. As a history teacher at the High School for Environmental Studies, I had the rare opportunity to discuss representation and currency with my students and Rosie Rios, the U.S. Treasurer from 2009 to 2016. Rios played a key role along with Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew in placing a woman on the front of American money for the first time in over a century.
Although they are digitally-native Generation Z teens, my students think that it matters who we see on something as ubiquitous as our money. Even though they spend a lot of their time online, they still feel passionate about adding diversity to the historical figures that grace our paper money. The proposed redesigned twenty-dollar bill would send an important message to all Americans and the world: it wasn’t just white men who played a role in developing the nation. As one of my students remarked: “Seeing a woman on the twenty-dollar bill would redefine what ‘success’ means in the eyes of our nation, making the term more inclusive towards women of color and showing that white men aren’t the only ones who ought to be idolized.”
However, this decision by the Trump administration to delay these changes in American currency until 2028 came as no surprise, considering the cast of characters involved. Harriet Tubman (abolitionist, leader of the Underground Railroad, Union army spy, and the first woman in U.S. history to lead a military expedition) is scheduled to replace Andrew Jackson (the 19th-century president known as the champion of the “common man,” a slaveholder infamous for brutal Indian removal policies) on the front of the twenty-dollar bill. Donald J. Trump was on the campaign trail when the plan was announced in 2016. He criticized the currency change as another example of “political correctness” run amuck that ran counter to his “Make America Great Again” agenda. Once elected, Trump has continuously expressed deep admiration for Jackson. Nevertheless, Twitter erupted over the news, catapulting #HarrietTubman to the number one trending topic for a large part of Wednesday.
Exactly one day before Mnuchin’s announcement and the corresponding Twitter outrage, my U.S. History students crammed around tables in the school’s library. As I introduced our nation’s 43rd Treasurer, Rosie Rios, natural sunlight beamed through the windows, highlighting the dozens of vibrant student self-portraits that sat atop the bookshelves. Rios began her presentation by discussing what inspired her to lead the initiative to secure a woman on American currency. After poring over documents at the Department of Treasury’s Historical Resource Center, she noticed that every image of a woman that she came across was a fictional character. Rios explained, “They were like Lady Liberties representing specific symbols. These images were used on everything from currency to savings bonds and postage stamps. But every image of a man was a real one: a founding father, a president, a Cabinet member.” That is when Rios realized that the U.S. has not had a woman on the front of its currency since Martha Washington last appeared on the one-dollar Silver Certificate over a century ago, alongside her husband, in 1896.
Rios knew that she had to change that. Through the first-ever nationwide public engagement process in the history of the federal government (using a social media portal, roundtables, and town halls), Harriet Tubman was chosen to replace Andrew Jackson on the front of the twenty-dollar bill. It was also decided that the back of the ten-dollar bill would include images of the 1913 Suffrage March, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and Alice Paul. The back of the five-dollar bill will pay homage to significant turning points at the Lincoln Memorial, with images of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Marian Anderson, and Eleanor Roosevelt. Anticipating these bold changes, one of my students remarked: “I’d feel like my presence in society matters and is appreciated because we’re recognized by not only those around us but also by the American Government.”
After hearing from Rios, students experimented with Notable Women, an Augmented Reality (AR) app that she created with Google. The app features 100 historic women selected from the Teachers Righting History database, a collection of women whom the American people recommended to appear on actual U.S. currency during Rios’ time at the U.S. Department of Treasury. You can select one of the 100 notable women, hold the app over a dollar bill, and similar to a Snapchat filter, the image on your money suddenly changes. As they scrolled through the women featured in the app, my students (primarily Black, Latino, and more than fifty percent female) expressed their views on the importance of seeing more people like them on our currency. One of my students watched as the Notable Woman app superimposed an image of Ida B. Wells over the original George Washington portrait on her one-dollar bill and said: “Seeing a woman on American currency would help me feel motivated to work hard as an independent woman with no boundaries or limits.” While another group of students at a nearby table read about Wilma Mankiller on the app, one young woman relayed how seeing someone other than a white man on money “would make more women feel more valued in this country and in society in general.” Another young man said: “I would feel more welcome in the United States if I saw someone similar to me.” After using the app to display Madam C.J. Walker’s portrait on a five-dollar bill, another student marveled at the significance of seeing a black entrepreneur such as Walker on her money: “I think that as a black woman, it would make me feel more appreciated and valued. Throughout history, black people, in general, have been regarded as unimportant, so seeing a woman of color on currency would change things up for the better.”
By the way, these are not just the feelings of a bunch of teenagers from two of my U.S. History classes. Data and psychological studies corroborate the anecdotal evidence collected from my students. Dr. Lynette Long, founder of Equal Visibility Everywhere, explained in a recent interview with the CBS Morning News that “Eighty percent of communication is nonverbal. So, you can tell girls, and I hear it all the time, ‘You can be whatever you wanna be.’ But what do they see? They see you can’t.” For example, there are more than 5000 outdoor monuments in the United States; fewer than 400 depict women.
Some might think that this conflict over who appears on our currency is just a symbolic issue, and instead, we should shift our focus to how both progress for narrowing the gender pay gap as well as improving gender diversity in the workplace is at a standstill. Moreover, although women made tremendous gains in the 2018 midterm elections, there is still an ongoing disparity of representation in politics.
However, gaining female representation, front and, center on the twenty-dollar bill, might be the most tangible inequity that the American people can remedy. After all, 2020 is an election year. If Trump does become a one-term President, his successor can make the Tubman bill a reality much sooner. Just think of the impact this changing face of American currency could have on a whole generation of young people. As one of my students explained: “I have grown up with the idea that people like me have little worth, so seeing someone that looks like me on a twenty-dollar bill will stop the taught cycle that a girl’s value is defined only by her beauty. We can finally have female role models recognized for their contributions to the world.” A more inclusive America will be reflected in our wallets as well as a reminder that, as Rosie Rios explained to my class: “It is not history. It is not herstory. It is our story.”
Sari Beth Rosenberg is a writer and educator based in New York City. In March, she was awarded the 2019 Paul Gagnon Prize by the National Council for History Education. Rosenberg was selected as one of New York City Department of Education’s #DOESheroes for Women’s History Month. Her recent media contributions include theSkimm’s “Back To School” video series, Travel Channel’s “Mysteries at the Museum,” and the daily women’s history #SheDidThat series for A&E Television Networks/Lifetime. She is currently writing the new eleventh grade U.S. History curriculum for the New York City Department of Education with a small team of educators. @saribethrose on Twitter & Instagram.