by Charlotte Force
A green flurry of movement is sweeping the nation – its outcome might change the landscape of American wallets forever. Women On 20s is a reform group dedicated to replacing the likeness of Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill with an image of an important woman from American history: Eleanor Roosevelt, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, or Wilma Mankiller. Many questions line the opinion-section of the New York Times, and endless blog posts about the topic. The most common argument narrows down to: shall we celebrate or condemn Andrew Jackson?
Women make up more than half of America’s population; in America, there are 0.97 males for every female, according to a 2010 estimate by the US Census Bureau. African-Americans make up 12.6% of the population, with Asian Americans and Native Americans in tow. Women On 20s mandates that it only makes sense to have these demographics represented in all facets of daily life – including the little green bills in the average American wallet.
The representation of figures on dollar bills is a way for the United States Treasury Department to commemorate great figures in American history: Abraham Lincoln on the penny, Thomas Jefferson on the nickel, Franklin D. Roosevelt on the dime, George Washington on the quarter, John F. Kennedy on the half dollar… Women populating the world of coins are Susan B. Anthony, a 19th century suffragette and the first woman to vote in America, and Sacagawea, the Native American woman who led Lewis and Clark in their expedition of the Louisiana territory.
The world of bills, however, has no female faces to boast: George Washington ($1), Thomas Jefferson ($2), Abraham Lincoln ($5), Alexander Hamilton ($10), Andrew Jackson ($20), Ulysses S. Grand ($50), Benjamin Franklin ($100), William McKinley ($500*), Grover Cleveland ($1,000*), James Madison ($5,000*), Salmon P. Chase ($10,000*), and Woodrow Wilson ($100,000*) line the hallowed green halls of the dollar bill (*no longer in circulation). Despite of the droves of deserving social, cultural, and political leaders to make their mark on American history, there seems to be a bias for presidents, founding fathers, and secretaries of the treasury – who can all be classified as Caucasian and male – on paper money.
Most featured figures have committed questionable acts. The question is, then, why campaign against the $20 bill’s Andrew Jackson?
The seventh president of the United States has always been a controversial man: dubbed “Old Hickory” for his use of a hickory stick to whip his troops into shape, Jackson was the rough-and-tumble leader who conquered the Florida territory from Spain in 1818. He grew up in a poor Scots-Irish family on the border of the Carolinas, exceeding his means and scaling the ranks of politics. He first helped to establish the state of Tennessee, then moved on to the House of Representatives, then the Senate. Jackson’s claim to fame was his role in the War of 1812, in which he led the decisive victory against the British at the Battle of New Orleans. Old Hickory was an extremely popular president, as evidenced by the massive support for him in the 1824 election. He was a man of the people, worn and shaped by the frontier… But while he was a hardy man, he had accumulated a vast wealth and owned hundreds of slaves who worked on the Hermitage plantation, which he purchased in 1806. Owning slaves in the early 19th century was normal, not the atrocity it would be today, and he had earned his large estate through hard work. He was also a staunch opponent of the central banking system and campaigned for gold and silver coins over paper currency (making him an ironic choice to be printed on a dollar bill). The most controversial part of Jackson’s presidency – one of the most shameful events in American history – was the Indian Removal Act of 1830. This legislation passed by Andrew Jackson’s administration resulted in the removal of Indian tribes from their ancestral homelands, and their mass displacement to Oklahoma Territory. This displacement is more commonly known at the “Trail of Tears”, for by some estimates the death rate on the road to Oklahoma was 24%. The Muscogee, Seminole, Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations suffered from disease, exposure, and starvations while moving away from their homes.
The Indian Removal Act of 1830 can be considered as one of the biggest civil rights violations of American history, along with slavery, Jim Crow laws, and the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War I. Because of Andrew Jackson’s affiliation with the Act, and his varied violent tendencies, some have retrospectively condemned him as villainous rascal of a politician.
Many argue that Andrew Jackson was an upstanding, brave president, whose faults were a product of his time. America’s first president, George Washington, and the founding fathers, including the deified Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton, all owned slaves. Thomas Jefferson even had an affair with one of his slaves and never recognized the children born out of wedlock – yet we do not campaign to strip him of his spot on the $2 bill. The question is: where is the line between contemporary norms and immorality? Can we stand to say that Andrew Jackson was a condemnable scoundrel, or do we instead justify his place in history and commemorate him as the first president born a “common man”?
The conclusion one may draw is based entirely on a personal ethical compass – there is no way to quantify how “good” or “bad” an individual is. In the case of the $20 bill however, there is more to take into account than the character of Andrew Jackson.
The truly important factors are what the American people feel best represents them, and whose face they choose to have on their currency. It speaks for our society’s ever-advancing social understanding that, whereas once a president could own several hundred fellow human beings, today we respect each other enough to want women and racial minorities on our currency. Historically, these groups have been grossly treated and misrepresented – strong female leaders have been few and far between in the winding road of human history. Our acceptance of different races dates back to only 80 years ago – it’s been only three generations since Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Betty Friedan (amongst armies of other activists) pioneered the social equality that we take for granted today. The Civil Rights and Feminist movements seem like old news to new generations, but we are more privileged than we know to live in this time period and benefit from the hard work of our predecessors.
There may be portraits of women of American currency – Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea on the $1 coin, Helen Keller on the Alabama quarter, and a portrait of Martha Washington on 1886 and 1891 silver certificates – but these are not commonplace coins. The only likely place to find S.B. Anthony is as change for a Metro Card or Coca-Cola from a vending machine.
Women On 20s has declared that the time has come to celebrate the role of women in America and their entrance into politics. The year 2020 is the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, also known as the universal suffrage act, which gave women the right to vote. Women On 20s’ mission is to pressure the Obama administration (and its successor) into replacing Andrew Jackson with a woman in commemoration of that historical legislation, and the 100 years of civil rights progress since.
In democratic style, Women On 20s has published a poll to vote for the woman to campaign for as the new face on the $20 bill. The contenders are Eleanor Roosevelt, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and Wilma Mankiller. All of these women, besides serving as role models to girls around the world, were civil rights activists. Eleanor Roosevelt used her platform as first lady of the United States to pioneer civil and women’s rights on the global scale. She was a UN delegate and drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Harriet Tubman was an Underground Railroad conductor who led some 300 slaves to freedom, after freeing herself from slavery in the south. She was also a nurse, spy, and scout in the civil war, and was active in the women’s suffrage movement after the 15th amendment did not give women the right to vote. Rosa Parks was a famous activist in the 1960s Civil Rights movement. She famously refused to give a white man a seat on the bus, despite the oppressive Jim Crow laws imposed on the South. Wilma Mankiller was the first elected female Chief of a Native American nation in modern times – she was the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation for 10 years (1985-1995), and helped the 300,000 citizens under her care through community development, education, and healthcare programs.
“A woman’s place is on the money,” says the title page of the Women On 20s website. Only time will tell if the campaign will attain its goal by 2020, but five years is a long time to garner support. Over 256,000 votes have accumulated in the span of 5 weeks, and the final ballot is between the four candidates. The movement has been met with a lot of criticism, from Jackson supporters to conservatives and everyone in between. The movement is in the hands of the people to express their opinion on the matter, which is, after all, the principal rule of democracy.