In Writing

Since “woman on the currency” thing got started, I have been honestly wracking my brain to think of a suitable candidate–that is, a woman who had profound and lasting impact on American life to the level of the current honorees. I honestly have not come up with single person, anyone who even rose to the relatively low bar of displacing Jackson.

That is a quote from a friend of mine, posted here anonymouslyto protect the guilty.  When I saw that comment pop up on my Facebook feed, I felt the familiar swell of rage I do when I hear something I find incredibly offensive.  I began a flaming retort about the many things wrong with the statement.

Then I stopped.

Nothing is served by the little eruptions of anger at someone else’s opinions on Facebook.  People are unfriended, positions become more entrenched.  No one listens.  It occurred to me that he really believes this and wants to come up with an intellectually honest answer – he “wracked his brain,” after all, so I thought the world might be better served by me explaining why it’s so egregiously overdue to have a woman on our paper currency (and, oh, yeah, in the White House too).  This is a guy I’ve known for a decade, had drinks with and lamented with about the state of our love lives.  He’s a good guy.  He’s also just so terribly wrong.

Let’s start with the part of his statement that needs most analysis – the “profound and lasting impact” bar that he’s set as a requirement for inclusion on our currency.  If he can’t think of a woman who has made a profound and lasting impact on our country’s life, then there have been serious gaps in his education.  But, of course, the real issue is probably not that he can’t think of a woman who’s made an impact (even though American education in many ways neglects to tell kids about the roles women have played in events), but that he has a narrow definition of what “a profound and lasting impact” means.  He means military victory, presidential decrees, big sweeping legislation.

You know.  Boy stuff.

Here’s what’s wrong with making this the bar by which we decide who we place on our currency: it’s narrow.  It’s backward thinking.  It also ignores that pesky fact that no one likes to talk about: that for most of our country’s history, women have had to struggle against laws and societal conventions that have seriously curtailed our ability to make the kind of “profound and lasting impact” that he and many like him think is the only bar of greatness.  The first woman elected to Congress, Jeannette Rankin, took office in 1917. Women were not able to vote in a presidential election in all states until 1920.  At the start of our nation’s history, women had virtually no legal rights independent of her husband: we couldn’t own property (my own home state of New Jersey didn’t pass legislation allowing it until 1872), enter into contracts or earn a salary.

Makes it kinda hard to work on all that “profound and lasting impact” stuff.

But here’s the other problem with that bar: it turns a blind eye to the aspirational side of the national symbols we choose.  Currency is part of the national myth we create, along with our pomp and pageantry.  Historians know that things like currency shape the image we’re trying to project as much as reflect our past and history.  With a woman on our currency, we make a statement not just about where we’ve been, but about where we’re looking to go.  Obviously, the choice of who we put on our currency has never been about a perfect assessment of merit (such a thing would be impossible, for starters).  Is Andrew Jackson, for example, the president currently shown on our $20 bill, and who enforced removal of Native Americans from their lands, worthier than Franklin D. Roosevelt, who successfully led us through the most horrific conflict our nation has ever seen?  He’s not.  Choosing who goes on currency is an imperfect art.

A woman will go on our $10 bill in 2020, in time to mark the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage.  When it does, women will have had the vote for only 41% of our nation’s history.  Although we’re slightly over 50% of the population, we currently hold only 5.2% of the CEO positions in Fortune 500 companies.  We are disproportionately affected by poverty, physical abuse and violence.

So… putting a woman on the $10 bill: is it time?  It’s way overdue.  Will it change anything?  Probably not immediately.  But then symbols don’t work that way.  It will take a whole generation of girls seeing someone that looks like them every time they fork over a bill for a snack or a book or a movie ticket for it to make any difference.

Is it important?  There are bigger things.  With all the electronic payment and debit cards in use today, it’s probably not as powerful a symbol as it might have been when I was a girl.  But it’s not a bad step on the road to true equality.

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