Women deserve representation on U.S. currency

April 30, 2010|By Lynette Long

Earlier this year, Rep. Patrick McHenry, a North Carolina Republican, introduced legislation that would take President Ulysses S. Grant off the $50 bill and replace him with President Ronald Reagan. This legislation has sparked currency wars as Reagan supporters try to unseat Grant, who has held jurisdiction over the $50 bill since 1913. The original $50 bill was issued in 1863 and sported a picture of Alexander Hamilton. The images of seven different men have graced the fifty, George Washington being the only other president. The other men so honored were Henry Clay (1869), Edward Everett (1878), Silas Wright (1882) and William Seward (1891).

As Reagan and Grant supporters duke it out over who should be on the $50 bill, not a single legislator has proposed a woman who could represent the 51 percent of the population that hasn't been seen on our nation's currency in more than 100 years. What makes this especially surprising is that 92 women currently serve in the House of Representatives and hopefully understand the importance of female representation on our nation's currency.

Women did appear on U.S. currency in the 19th century. Martha Washington was featured by herself on the $1 bill in 1886 as well as with her husband George in the 1896 "educational series." The only other woman to appear on U.S. paper currency was Pocahontas, who appeared on a $10 bank note in 1869 and a $20 demand note in 1865. It's astounding that only two women have appeared on our nation's currency since its inception, and neither in the last century.

In the current climate of partisan politics, representatives from each party could introduce legislation proposing a woman from their own party for the honor. Democratic members of congress might nominate first lady and humanitarian, Eleanor Roosevelt. Republican members of Congress might choose Maine senator and presidential nominee Margaret Chase Smith.

Other noteworthy choices could be the abolitionists Harriet Beecher Stowe and Maryland's own Harriet Tubman, neither of whom had the right to vote and who consequently had no party affiliation. Or legislators could propose suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who were instrumental in the 70-year battle for women's suffrage. Nonpolitical choices also abound, including conservationists Rachel Carson and Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

Our neighbor to the north does have women on its currency. Queen Elizabeth II is on the front of the Canadian $20 note, and in 2004, the Bank of Canada unveiled a new $50 bank note featuring, for the first time, images of Canadian women. The images are of the Alberta women known as the Famous Five as well as the renowned activist Thérèse Casgrain. The Famous Five were a group of five women who in 1924 asked the Supreme Court of Canada whether the word "persons" in the British North America Act included "female persons."

The issue of who is on our nation's currency sends an important message, both internally and to the rest of world, as to who we are and what we value. Currency is the most ubiquitous symbol of our nation and literally touches almost every citizen on a daily basis. How can the female citizens of our country feel respected when they get a daily reminder that their nation renders them invisible? How can the other nations of the world take the United States seriously as a champion of human rights when our highly prized greenbacks lack diversity?

Our government can preach gender equality, but what our citizens see overrides what our government says.

Lynette Long is president of the nonprofit Equal Visibility Everywhere, based in Chevy Chase. Her e-mail is president@equalvisibilityeverywhere.org.

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