By Bruce Newman, San Jose Mercury News (TNS)
SAN JOSE, California — There are more $20 bills in circulation than there are humans on the planet — 8.1 billion in all — and as the only denomination issued by most ATMs, it has become America’s most indispensable currency. Given the role of symbolism in a system that assigns value to paper currency because that’s what the government says it’s worth, the symbolic importance of being the hood ornament on our most useful bill cannot be overstated.
As a great sucking sound arose from the U.S. Treasury at April 15’s tax filing deadline, the government began considering a measure that for the first time could result in a woman’s face appearing on the $20 bill. In a five-finger exercise of Capitol Hill’s purse string power, Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), introduced the Women on the Twenty Act — legislation undoubtedly destined to be better remembered as the $20 Bill.
Demonstrating $20/$20 political foresight, a grass-roots campaign called Women on 20s had already done the spadework of formulating an all-female cast of potential replacements for Andrew Jackson, who brought his high forehead, tall hair and regrettable history as a slave owner and persecutor of Native Americans to the $20 bill in 1928. The campaign wants “Old Hickory” sent to the woodshed, and it got nearly half a million online voters to narrow the field to abolitionist Harriet Tubman, civil rights icon Rosa Parks, activist first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and the first female Cherokee chief — who also brings the perfect name to the job — Wilma Mankiller.
It’s been almost 90 years since any of the seven common denominations of U.S. currency changed its portrait, with Grover Cleveland getting booted upstairs to the $1,000 bill in favor of Jackson. “I think it’s a huge deal, and it’s been a long time coming,” says Manning Garrett, owner of Manifest Auctions in Greenville, S.C., which deals in rare and collectible currencies. “A lot of European countries have gone to more relevant scientific or business people, as opposed to just politicians. In this day and age, it’s probably not appropriate to have former slave owners on every single piece of our paper money.”
Oh yes, that. The undeniable taint of slavery attaches to the $1 (George Washington), $2 (Thomas Jefferson), $20 (Jackson) and $100 (Ben Franklin) bills. And, of course, all of the faces on our paper money are male. Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea, the only women ever represented on U.S. currency, were relegated to the rare — and not in a good way — dollar coin.
“Men have always been in the positions of power that choose these things,” says Pam Vogt, owner of Camino Coin Co. in Burlingame, “but we have had women who stood out in history for as many years as there have been men on the bills.” She’s a Tubman supporter.
Women have been heard on matters of money at the highest levels — the Fed’s chairwoman is Janet Yellen — but they have rarely showed their faces in a bankroll. That hasn’t been a problem for other countries, especially England, where you can’t order a plate of bangers and mash without forking over a bill bearing the likeness of Queen Elizabeth II. The Bank of England announced recently it would replace the eminent naturalist Charles Darwin on the ten pound note with author Jane Austen in 2017.
Austen’s heyday was the early 19th century, and generally speaking, central banks seem to prefer currency cover girls that are a couple of hundred years dead. The fact that America’s incumbent bill boys are all white guys, coupled with an obvious desire that any change in currency reflect the nation’s ethnic diversity, could work in favor of a noncontroversial figure like Pocahontas, the 17th-century Indian princess. The only face certain not to appear on the $20 bill is a living one.
That will come as a blow to Silicon Valley — irrepressible domain of now and the next big thing — where business titans such as Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer are disqualified by virtue of having a pulse, and feminist martyr Ellen Pao has a better chance of being the face of the next Kleiner Perkins funding round than the $20 bill.
When it comes to folding money, the U.S. Treasury is like that kid in “The Sixth Sense” — it sees dead people. That’s because of the numismatically notorious Spencer M. Clark, who was superintendent of the National Currency Bureau in 1864, when Congress authorized printing the nation’s first fractional currency notes. Clark decided to put his own picture on the five-cent note, creating a scandal of such magnitude that the bill was immediately retired.
Shaheen’s $20 Bill is unlikely to seek a standard-bearer who would cause $162 billion to be pulled from circulation. After all, she represents a state whose motto is “Live Free or Die.” Her legislative agenda may now need to include running that idea through an ATM to see if there’s a woman willing to “Die for Twenty Bucks.”
Photo: The.Comedian via Flickr