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    A snub as green as envy

    The Red and Black
    • Vol. 1
    • Iss. 15

    By @Ratateague

    Preventing women from a place on the twenty propogates the subtle message that the woman is still second to the man. Before you roll your eyes and dismiss this as overanalyzing and blowing it out of proportion, consider this: the previous attempts to put women on the face of U.S. currency were limited to the $1 denomination. The lowest without going into fractions. (While that would be technically accurate, since women earn 78 cents on the dollar, that is not the empowering message we wish to send, right?) So two on coins (Sacagawea and Susan B. Anthony: both short-lived attempts) and one on the bill (Martha Washington, back in the 1880s–'90s). The only outlier to this trend was Pocahontas, who was unsurprisingly featured on the back of a twenty.

    "Woah, hold up. Why does it even matter?" you interject. Our currency is always with us, and serves as a mnemonic device for our national identity. It's a smaller piece of the larger puzzle that is the concept of "civil religion," as if the Eye of Providence or "In God We Trust" didn't make it obvious enough. Monuments, national holidays, the anthem, pledge of allegiance, flag pins, bills, are all subtle, more benign forms of pseudo-religious observance. Our historical icons could be considered the irreligious equivalent of saints, and national celebrations a form of mass worship ("Hail Martha, full of grace..."). I digress. Anyway, what's important is that our national symbols and iconic figures reflect truly on our continuing legacy, and to provide proportional representation that is cultural as well as political.

    It's worth noting two of the limitations of who can appear on currency: that no living person is allowed, and George Washington's face on the bill is not to be replaced. That did not prevent a workaround like the introduction of dollar coins, but to compete with such a national legend certainly made widespread adoption impossible for women on currency, especially with the vending machine lobby and the awkward bulk that loose change offers.

    Looking strictly at the prevalence of the various denominations, the three most popular values in circulation are 1, 20, and 100. No, 100 doesn't actually count, because the majority of transactions it's used in involves accounting and does not pass through the public's hands. The rest of it is very straightforward: twenties are the highest denomination we feel comfortable handling, for consumers, cashiers, and machines alike, and we end up with a lot of ones as a result of breaking larger bills. The ones boast the highest circulation at 11 billion, the twenties at 8 billion, the fives at 2.5 billion, and finally the tens at 2 billion. Ten is only a quarter as prevalent as the twenty, and less than a fifth of that of the one, et cetera. This more or less reflects the the abundance of change as it's broken down.

    The recent campaign itself to instate women on the bill started as a proposal for the twenty. "Women on 20's" called upon selected voters to choose from fifteen candidates of historical women as the next bill's candidate, in time for the upcoming centennial of women's suffrage. The prospective pool of candidates were refined to Wilma Mankiller, Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, and lastly, Harriet Tubman, who won out in the end. Wonderful! Except... that she would not be on the twenty, but the ten. And not as a replacement, but besides an existing Hamilton. ...WHAT!? You mean to tell us that not only will a former slave be featured in the same hall of fame as a prominent slaveholder and instigator of genocide, but one denomination lower and not even independently? Hopefully, the irony isn't lost on you. Quickly referring back to the earlier bit regarding prevalence, for every Hamilton/Tubman, you will see approximately five Washingtons and four Jacksons, on average. In terms of probability, that gives 1:10 or 10%, correct? Actually half that, considering she will be splitting the proverbial pot with someone else, so more like 1:20.

    That Jackson remains on the twenty, a place in currency next to that of Washington, should at the very least evoke a range from raised eyebrows to disbelief to outrage. Here is a man who established his wealth upon the institution of slavery through The Hermitage plantation. At an initial entry of nine slaves, his thousand-acre venture rapidly inflated until the number rose to around 150 upon his death in 1845. He did not even like the idea of paper currency, and preferred to revert to a system of gold and silver. And in pursuit of such a system, wild speculation increased and the Panic of 1837 ensued, leading to a severe depression well into Van Buren's presidency and the demise of the Second Bank of the United States. Lastly, and most infamously, Jackson was responsible for the Indian Removal Act of 1830 that would result in the Trail of Tears, leading to displacement of well over 70,000 native americans and the estimated death toll of 8,000 to 17,000 in the process. And yet, we don't give thought to the impact handing off a twenty has to a person of different background. It is stupefying how mundane and automatic our transactions have become, that as a society, we have remained naive in obliviousness to our cultural insensitivity.

    Jack Lew, our current Treasury Secretary, reasoned that the ten dollar bill was already next in line for a makeover with more security features to prevent fraud. And fortunately for us, it's one of the decisions that is exempt from congressional approval, lest it be delayed, tacked with earmarks, and countered with a proposal for The Gipper. Yet it still leaves the rest of us wondering, was it purely a cost and planning issue, or were there politics involved? And just how hard would it have been to do a cut and paste job on the oval portrait?

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