Andrew Jackson Doesn’t Belong on a Twenty-Dollar Bill, a Woman Does

by Adele Oliveira

Last summer, during a speech in Kansas City about the economy, President Obama told an anecdote about a girl who’d written to him asking why there aren’t any women on our currency. “She gave me like a long list of possible women to put on our dollar bills and quarters and stuff,” Obama said. “Which I thought was pretty good, a pretty good idea.”

For a new non-profit called “Women on 20s,” it’s an extremely good idea, and one whose time has come. The organization’s campaign aims to remove Andrew Jackson, the nation’s wild-haired and controversial seventh president, from the $20 and replace him with an important American woman in time for the centennial of women’s suffrage in 2020.

The 15 candidates include the usual suspects, like Rosa Parks and Eleanor Roosevelt, but also less-celebrated figures like Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman elected to Congress, Patsy Mink, the first woman of color and Asian American to be elected to Congress (she was instrumental in the passage of Title IX), and Frances Perkins, FDR’s four-term labor secretary and the first female cabinet member. In the first round of voting, voters can choose three candidates; from those three, another round of voting will select a single candidate to nominate to President Obama to be the new face of the $20.

Though it hasn’t happened since 1929, changing the portraits on money is a relatively easy process: It usually doesn’t require an act of Congress, just a directive from the Secretary of the Treasury. We spoke to Susan Ades Stone, a journalist and Women on 20s’ executive director and strategist about why the symbols on our currency are important, and why women deserve to be on the money.

Why money?

Money is something that we use every day. The people that are on it are meant to be figures that we revere in our culture and our history. At this point in the 21st century, it seems fitting that we re-vamp that paradigm; that we not only honor the men that shaped this country, but the women, too.

What’s working on the campaign been like so far?

It’s very exciting. We worked for almost a year pulling all the elements together, and strategizing how to involve the most people in this referendum. It’s sparked a lot of enthusiasm, and it’s a very positive campaign. We’ve got almost 50,000 votes right now, and I think we’ll have no trouble getting to at least 100,000. [The number of signatures required to petition the President.]

How did the project come about, and how did you get involved? Barbara Ortiz Howard, who owns a construction company, is named as the founder on the website.

Barbara came up with this idea a few years ago. Originally, she was thinking of the ten-dollar bill. But then she realized that the centennial [of women’s suffrage] was coming up in 2020. She said, “hmmm, who’s on the 20?” When she started looking into Andrew Jackson, he seemed like a better person to replace. She e-mailed friends of hers — I was one of them — asking what we thought of the idea and who they might like to see on the $20. About a year ago, she incorporated into a company [registered as a 501(c)(3) non-profit] called Women on 20s and I offered to help. Barbara owns a business and didn’t really have time to figure how to get this off the ground, and I was in between projects. I had no idea I’d get in this deep!

What do you think would change if we had a woman on the $20?

It would change perceptions, particularly for young people. They would see that we value women and their contributions, and that if they strive for great things, they’ll be recognized for that. For too long, we’ve had women who’ve accomplished things in the background. Sometimes the men they worked with got the credit instead. Putting a woman on paper currency is an important step towards narrowing the gender gap. You can legislate for equality, but unless the culture embraces it in ways we experience in our everyday lives, it’s not going to be fully realized. We hope it’s a stepping stone to better things, and more important initiatives.

What would more important initiatives be?

Equal pay for equal work. This $20 that might have a woman’s portrait on it is worth $20 when it’s used for paying people’s salaries: It’s not worth 78 cents on the dollar for women, it’s worth a dollar for a dollar. Yes, it’s symbolic gesture, but symbols matter in this country, and the portraits on the money say something about what we value and what we stand for.

Andrew Jackson was pretty terrible: He was the driving force behind the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the Trail of Tears that ensued. But Jefferson and Washington were slave owners. Should they be replaced on currency, too?

That’s not for me to say, but I will say that the difference between Jackson and the other slave-owning presidents that are on the money is that Jackson’s legacy has become dominated by the negative aspects of his presidency. The Trail of Tears has become such a blot on his reputation, and it’s important to remove that reminder of that painful time. The other reason that it’s fitting to replace Andrew Jackson is that he was very opposed to the central bank and paper currency. He wanted gold and silver standards. I think if he were alive today, he’d be the first person to say, “get me off of here.”

Two women, Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea, are featured on currency, but they’re on little-used dollar coins. Last year, 8.68 million Native American dollar coins (including the Sacagawea) were minted as opposed to 35.14 million Presidential dollar coins. Do you have any thoughts about why those coins are less popular? Do you think it’s because they feature women?

I think that it’s two reasons. First, the Susan B. Anthony was only minted a total of three years. The first two years it was issued in 1978 and 1979, then it went out of production, and in 1999 it was briefly minted again. Today, it’s not easy to find one in circulation. If you get a $20 roll of dollar coins, you might get one or two Susan B. Anthonys. The Sacagawea is also in minimal production. I don’t know why the government decided to print fewer of these women dollar coins. We do know why the Susan B. Anthony wasn’t that popular: it was too similar to the quarter. I don’t have any evidence to say that [the coins are less popular] because they feature women, but I think it would’ve been more controversial to phase these coins out if it had been say, Martin Luther King Jr. on them. I think there would have been an outcry about that, if suddenly it was replaced because it was mistaken for a quarter. That’s not to say that our currency shouldn’t picture someone like Martin Luther King, but right now, our paper money is all men, and that’s what needs to be corrected first. If it can be a woman of color, that would be a great thing.

There’s a video posted on the campaign website that features (super adorable) children examining money, and they’re genuinely surprised when they see only men. These kids are little, so their exposure to the world is minimal, but it’s so self-evident to them that women (from their mom to Rosa Parks to the First Lady) should be on money. Do you think that kids born after the millenium and raised in an atmosphere where feminism is at least discussed in the mainstream will see women on money as a natural, inherent thing?

I do, and I read something yesterday that was really interesting: it said that the age at which girls peak in ambition to go into politics and wanting to be the president is nine years old. And boys, they’re on an upward trajectory in their ambition — it doesn’t stop. That means that girls do not have adequate signals that women can achieve great things on an even playing field with men. We’re a very different country than we were in 1929, when these portraits were last changed. We have a much more diverse population, and women have many more opportunities than they had at that time. That must be reflected in our symbols.

Adele Oliveira is a freelance writer in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Photos via Wikimedia Commons

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