Harriet Tubman on the Twenty Dollar Bill

Is this Progress or Pandering?

On the far left, abolitionist leader, Harriet Tubman (c1820-1913) circa 1900. Getty Images

 Harriet Tubman was an amazing woman: she escaped slavery, freed hundreds of others, and even worked as a spy in the Civil War. Now she’s going to grace the front of the twenty dollar bill. But is move progress or pandering?

 

The Current State of Currency

The faces of United States currency have a few things in common. They feature prominent figures in American history. Figures such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Benjamin Franklin have been pictured on our paper money, and some of our coins, for decades.

These individuals were prominent in the founding and/or leadership of the nation. Not surprising, money is sometimes referred to colloquially as “dead presidents,” despite the fact that some figures on the money, such as Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin, were never presidents. In some ways, that fact does not matter much to the public. Hamilton, Franklin, and the others are larger than life figures in the history of the founding of the nation. It makes sense that the currency would feature them.

 

However, what Washington, Lincoln, Hamilton, and Franklin also have in common is that they are prominent white men. Indeed, very few women, and fewer people of color more generally, have been featured on U.S. currency. For example, prominent women’s suffragist Susan B. Anthony was featured on a United States dollar coin minted from 1979 to 1981; however, the series was halted due to poor public reception, only to be reissued again for a short period in 1999.

The following year another dollar coin, this time featuring the Native American guide and interpreter from the Shoshone nation, Sacagewa, who led Lewis and Clark on their expedition. Like the Susan B. Anthony coin, the golden dollar coin featuring Sacagewa was unpopular with the public and is of primary interest to collectors.

But it looks like things are about to change. Now several women, including Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Marian Anderson, and Alice Paul will be gracing other denominations of paper money in the next upcoming years.

 

How Did It Happen?

A group called Women on 20s has been advocating to replace former president Andrew Jackson on the twenty dollar bill. The non-profit, grassroots organization had one major goal: to convince President Obama that now is the time to put a woman’s face on America’s paper currency.

Women on 20s used an online election format with two rounds of voting that let the public choose a nominee from an original slate of 15 inspiring women from American history, women such as Wilma Mankiller, Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Sanger, Harriet Tubman and others. Over the course of 10 weeks, more than half a million people cast votes, with Harriet Tubman ultimately emerging as the winner. On May 12, 2015, Women On 20s presented a petition to President Obama with the election results. The group also encouraged him to instruct Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew to use his authority to make this currency change in time to have a new bill in circulation before the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in 2020.

And, after a year of public polls, discussion, and agitation, Harriet Tubman was chosen to be the face of the new twenty dollar bill.

 

Why the $20?

It’s all about the centennial of the 19th amendment, which granted (most but not all) women the right to vote. 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment and Women on 20s sees having women on the currency as the most appropriate way commemorate that milestone, arguing that “Let’s make the names of female ‘disrupters’—the ones who led the way and dared to think differently -- as well-known as their male counterparts. In the process, maybe it will get a little easier to see the way to full political, social and economic equality for women. And hopefully it won't take another century to realize the motto inscribed on our money: E pluribus unum, or ‘Out of many, one.’”

The move to replace Jackson makes sense. While he has been hailed throughout history because of his lowly beginnings and rise to the White House and his conservative views on spending, he was also an unabashed racist who engineered the removal of indigenous people from the southeast—also known as the infamous Trail of Tears—to make way for white settlers and the expansion of slavery because of his belief in Manifest Destiny. He is responsible for some of the darkest chapters in American history.

The group’s focus on putting women on paper money is a key one. Women had been featured on coins—and not the frequently used ones such as the quarter—yet those coins have been unpopular and have gone out of circulation quickly. Putting women on more frequently used paper money means that millions will use this currency. It means that women’s faces will be staring back at us while we buy groceries or tip servers or make it rain at the strip club. And instead of it being “all about the Benjamins,” it may be all about the Tubmans.

 

Who is Harriet Tubman?

Harriet Tubman was a slave, a conductor on the Underground Railroad, a nurse, a spy, and a suffragist. She was born into slavery in the 1820s in Dorchester, Maryland and named Araminta by her family. Tubman’s family was fractured by slavery and her own life was marred by violence and pain. For example, when she was 13, she received a blow to her from her master that resulted in a lifetime of illness, including headaches, narcolepsy, and seizures. In her 20s, she decided to take the ultimate risk: fleeing slavery.

To call Tubman brave is understatement. She not only made the perilous escape from slavery herself, she also returned South dozens of times to free hundreds of others. She used disguises to evade and outwit slave catchers and never lost a single person on the flight to freedom.

During the Civil War, Tubman worked as a nurse, cook, scout, and spy. In fact, in 1863, she led an armed raid that freed 700 slaves in South Carolina on the Combahee River.

Harriet Tubman has the great distinction of being the first woman ever to lead a military expedition in American history.

After the civil war, Tubman was an avid suffragist who worked with high profile women’s rights advocates such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, lecturing on the right to vote.

Later in life, after retiring to a farm outside of Auburn, New York, and after a long and arduous process of appeals, she secured a pension for herself of $20 per month for her Civil War efforts. How ironic that she will now grace the front of the $20. 

 

Is This Progress or Pandering?

Harriet Tubman is undoubtedly a great American hero. She fought for the oppressed and put her own life and body on the line numerous times for others. As a Black woman freedom fighter, her life is primary example of what it means to fight intersectionally—taking into account various intersecting oppressions. She represents some of the most marginalized in our history and her name and memory should be on the lips of schoolchildren everywhere.

But should she be on the $20?

Many have hailed the decision to replace Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman, citing the move as evidence of the great progress our nation has made. Indeed, during part of her life Tubman was legally recognized as chattel—that is, movable property like a candlestick, or a chair, or cattle. She could have legally bought or sold with U.S. currency. Therefore, goes the argument, the fact that she will now be the face of money shows how far we have come.

Others have remarked that this same irony is why Tubman should not be on the $20. The argument is that a woman who risked her life countless times in order to free others, and who spent her years advocating for social change should not be associated with something as debased as money. Also, some argue that the fact that she was considered property for much of her life makes her inclusion on the twenty dollar bill hypocritical and distasteful. Still more insist that Tubman on the $20 simply pays lip service to issues of racism and inequality. In a moment where activists are trying to make the claim that Black Lives Matter and when systemic oppression has still left Blacks on the bottom of the social totem pole, some wonder about how useful it is to have Harriet Tubman on the $20. Others have argued that paper currency should only be reserved for government officials and presidents. 

This is a particularly interesting moment to place Harriet Tubman on the $20. On the one hand, the U.S. has seen an amazing amount of social change in the past few decades. From having a Black president to the passage of gay marriage to the rapidly shifting racial demographics of the country, the U.S. is transforming to a new nation. However, some of the nation’s old guard is not going down with a fight. The increasing popularity of ultra-right wing conservatism, white supremacy groups, even the troubling rise of Donald Trump speaks to much of the uneasiness a substantial part of the country has with the social sea change going on. Some of the vitriolic reactions to the news of Tubman on the twenty dollar bill underscore that racism and sexism are far from over in this nation.

Interestingly, while Women on 20s did gain a victory for their campaign by getting Harriet Tubman on the $20, Andrew Jackson is not really going anywhere: he will be on the back of the note. Perhaps in the case of women gracing U.S. paper currency it is a situation where the more things change, the more things stay the same.