According to J.K. Rowling in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1999), “it is our choices, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” While she was mainly addressing individuals, the same can equally be true for distinct groups and nations. This can be seen in how we deal with our friends and our adversaries; how we handle the weakest and the strongest of us; and how we choose our leaders. More symbolically, it can be seen in the people we honor and the ways we choose to do so – be it anything from a grand monument or a street name to something that all of us probably have in our wallets, pocket, or purses – money. This month’s History Rhyme will briefly examine the faces that are currently on the money of the United States and an intriguing effort to use social media to broaden the list of those who have been so honored.
In our day-to-day economic lives, many probably do not think much of who is on our money let alone the significance of those faces. However, the roster of honorees can reveal what a nation’s leaders wish to convey about the past they feel should be emphasized. I discovered this first hand in the mid-1990s while attending a summer language school in Poland. At that time, the Polish government was making major changes in its currency. Not only were they dropping four zeros from their money (the złoty) in an effort to make purchases easier for stores, but also as a way to further eradicate reminders of the era of Communist control and oppression. Since it would be impossible to instantly remove all of the old currency at once, the Polish government began a phased transition where both old and new zlotys were in circulation. I am not ashamed to admit that it was rather difficult at times to remember if my old 50,000 złoty note was worth 5 new złoty or 50. The one good thing of visiting Poland at that time was that I could then still find the humorous t-shirt that said “I made my first million in Poland” (which with the old złoty meant about $50 by the exchange rate at the time). Ah, the small joys in life!
While the mix of old and new currencies was confusing (thank goodness I rode with honest cabbies), it did offer a prime example of using symbols to change a national narrative. While the new złoty were populated by historic kings and queens of Poland’s distant past, the Communist-era notes had either harmless, non-political Poles such as the composer Frederick Chopin, the scientist Marie Skłodowska-Curie, or the astronomer Copernicus (who were all used to convey the legitimacy of the Communist government), or obscure Socialists and Communists from Poland’s past such as the socialist activist Ludwik Waryński or the Soviet General Karol Wacław Świerczewski (neither of which were familiar to this student of Polish history) in pointed attempts to emphasize Poland’s historical ties to Communism and socialism.
While the government of the United States is not so heavy-handed in its efforts to use its currency to promote a certain version of the past, we can still look to see what messages those faces convey. On the paper currency, all those honored are white men. All but two (Alexander Hamilton on the $10 and Benjamin Franklin on the $100) were presidents – although both Hamilton and Franklin played crucial roles in the creation of the United States. On the coins, almost all those honored (exempting generalized figures like “liberty”) were also white, male presidents. The only exceptions were Susan B. Anthony and Sacajawea who both were on the poorly circulated dollar coin. What does this say about the history of the United States? First, it demonstrates the importance presidents have had in American politics and history. Second, it reminds us that as of 2015 we have not had a female president. Third, it reminds us that as of 2015, all of our deceased (a requirement to be put on money) presidents are white.
In an effort to address the lack of gender diversity on widely used currency denominations and perhaps to also address the lack of racial diversity, a group calling themselves “Women On 20s” (@WomenOn20s on Twitter) has started an online campaign to select a woman to be memorialized. Since President Barack Obama favors placing a woman on the money and that process does not require approval of congress, it is a very attainable goal. The reasoning for choosing the $20 as the proper venue for the selected woman is explained as follows: 2020 will be the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution which gave women the national right to vote; the current resident on the $20, Andrew Jackson, does not exactly embody the kind of past many want to emphasize; and because it seems odd and inappropriate to have the bank-hating Jackson is on a back note.
The process for selecting the fifteen women for voting is explained in much detail. After starting with 100 candidates, WomenOn20s had a panel of experts limit these to the final fifteen. The criteria for section were the impact the woman had on society, and the obstacles they faced in pursuing their goals. Some of the women selected were better known to the general public (e.g. Eleanor Roosevelt and Rosa Parks) while others were more obscure (e.g. the environmentalist Rachel Carson and Congresswoman Patsy Mink). A list of the next fifteen who just missed making the voting final list is also included on the website. Some of those names (e.g. Sally Ride, Helen Keller, Maya Angelou and Amelia Earhart) would undoubtedly be more familiar to the general public that some of those selected. Of those who just missed the cut is one with a connection to The History Rhyme – Jeannette Rankin who was featured here in The First of Many. Those who made the final fifteen represented a wide variety of careers – ranging from politicians (such as Frances Perkins who was the first female cabinet member as Labor Secretary under Franklin D. Roosevelt), to medical professionals (such as Clara Barton who founded the American Red Cross or Margaret Sanger who founded Planned Parenthood), to social activists (such as feminist Betty Friedan or abolitionist Sojourner Truth).
In mid-April, the final four candidates were announced. Three were selected by hundreds of thousands of voters from the fifteen original candidates – Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, and Harriet Tubman. A new woman was added to the list after what the website calls “strong public sentiment that people should have a choice of a Native American to replace Andrew Jackson.” She is former Cherokee Nation Chief Wilma Mankiller. The winner of the final vote will be recommended to the Secretary of the Treasury. All of these women have traits that merit their selection. Roosevelt (who was also in the earlier History Rhyme post Ladies First) served in many official and unofficial capacities for the American people. Parks and Tubman were fighters for civil rights for African-Americans during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Mankiller was the leader of her people. However, if this election is like many in America, name recognition will play a vital role in the final choice. So, in the opinion of this History Rhymer, the most known name of this group will be selected. Considering the national attention that the civil rights struggles led by Dr. Martin Luther King and the continuing relevance for so many even today, I predict that Rosa Parks will be the victor. In any case, hopefully there will be a new face on the money and a new national message to be sent from person to person in their daily lives of commerce. Visit WomenOn20s to vote and to see who will be selected.