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Not Your Dime Piece

Opinion | April 6, 2015

There are few things in the United States that go unchanged for nearly a century. Our paper currency is, unfortunately, one of them. The faces on our country’s bills have remained the same since 1929, when Andrew Jackson first graced the $20 bill. It seems only fitting that, after 86 years, someone else should get a turn. The Women on 20s campaign, conceived in 2014 by Barbara Ortiz Howard, firmly believes that someone should be a woman. The more than 200,000 user votes cast on the site’s poll indicate that Howard is hardly alone in her belief.

The campaign was created with the ultimate goal of putting a woman’s face on the $20 bill to mark the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote. It has been not only nearly 100 years since women began to vote, but also well over 100 years of history in which women have been active, influential and completely unrecognized. Our country has some serious catching up to do. This campaign is an opportunity to challenge dominant narratives of American history by recognizing the women who have shaped it. More than just an opportunity, Women on 20s is one major step in acknowledging—and eliminating—the rampant gender inequality in our country. The campaign draws attention to the embedded, conventionalized nature of patriarchy.

Until now, there has been no major movement to change the faces on our bills. We were so caught up in the meaning of our money that we wholly ignored the meaning of the faces on our money. Though the fight for gender equality has raged since the mid-1900s, Women on 20s points out how much progress we must still make. The campaign highlights, using US currency as one of many examples, the extent to which gender inequality has infiltrated all aspects of our society despite our attempts to curb it.  While it is imperative that we continue fighting for fair pay and for more women in powerful positions, we cannot overlook all of  the nooks and crannies of society that preserve and breed a  patriarchy.

In typical female fashion, the Women on 20s site does double duty. It is designed as both a source of information and an interactive platform for discussion and action, offering users a ballot to vote for the three women they most want to see on the $20 bill. It sets itself apart from typical campaign websites not only by pointing out an age-old flaw within our current system, but also by proposing a solution that requires our involvement—as active citizens and hyperactive Internet users—to reach . In calling Internet users to action, the campaign website creates an inclusive, safe space for women and men alike to express their appreciation for impactful women in history.

The inclusive nature of Women on 20s is likely one of the primary reasons it has gained Internet-wide recognition over the last few months. The campaign is anything but a “feminazi”, “man-hating” crusade; rather, it is a unifying movement across gender and party lines that furthers the position of women without negating the position of men.  This is not to say that all feminist campaigns should be so “gentle”. But in an age where the operational definition of feminism is under constant renovation, often leading to misconceptions about the movement’s intentions, campaigns like Women on 20s that are so simple in both purpose and procedure have a higher likelihood of acceptance and ultimate success.

It’s impossible to pinpoint exactly what the “success” of a feminist movement means because there are so many forms of gender inequality that pervade our society and require our attention, but the Women on 20s website explains success as “[sparking] a national conversation about respecting the accomplishments, power and influence of American women.” This measure of success raises some important questions about the national perception of women in America. Why are women’s actions so often overlooked and devalued? Why is it harder to acknowledge and accept a woman’s influence than a man’s?

The answer lies in our country’s age-old patriarchal ideology. The fabric of our history was woven by men—the founding fathers, presidents, senators, governors, and leaders of big businesses—who established their authority at the outset and have since maintained it. Symptoms of this ideology include the constant and often subconscious use of male pronouns in texts—liturgical texts and American literature—as well as the commonplace use of the word “man” to encompass all of humanity (i.e. mankind).  Women have been undercut by our nation’s obsession with tradition and male-centrism to the extent that 86 years of superbly accomplished female faces have been passed up for the face of a three-century old slave trader whose accolades include a raucous party on the White House lawn and the infamous Indian Removal Act .

Moreover, a quick dip into your wallet would remind you that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln all appear on both paper currency and coins. Why, after all this time, are we still recycling the same male faces on multiple forms of currency instead of using one of the many qualified women of history? A few “lucky” women received honorary spots on US coins in the past—Martha Washington, Susan B. Anthony, and Sacagawea—but none of them were in popular circulation, and they are antiquated by today’s standards (their ridged edges are hardly conducive to vending machine slots, so…). Additionally, Washington and Sacagawea were commemorated on coinage for supporting and associating with “great” men rather than for their own accomplishments.

The practice of casting women in the shadows of their male counterparts is both outdated and unjust. While women have been working to step out of the male shadow since the battle for suffrage, they are still the subjects of only 24 percent of all news media. This statistic is staggeringly low, and Women on 20s is one way to start conversations about influential women as well as bring them into preexisting media dialogues. This complete disregard for the accomplishments of the female sex has destructive effects on the history of our country as well as the future of it. We must recognize the full breadth of our history—and not just 50 percent of it—so as not to erase parts of it and risk repeating our own mistakes.

Women on 20s is a candid reminder that women are underrepresented in all aspects of society—even the quotidian, seemingly most insignificant ones, like our currency.  The campaign website presents 15 extremely qualified candidates to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill; it’s shocking how influential these women were and how unknown many of them are today despite it. Women like Rachel Carson, Patsy Mink and Frances Perkins—Google them— made major contributions to both society and the government, the effects of which are still seen and felt today.

So why don’t we know these women? Because old habits die hard, and it’s much easier to say that women don’t have equal representation because there is nothing to represent, that history was shaped by men while women were busy rearing the children. This is a tragic falsehood. Women were making history, too; their history has just been overlooked and diminished by the pervasiveness of male authority. It is unacceptable to remain as ignorant as we currently are. We must educate ourselves in our own history by putting women back into it. One effective  way to do this is by reacquainting ourselves with the faces of America’s most influential women and carrying them around in our wallets as constant reminders of their contributions. If we can put a woman on our currency, perhaps we can begin the long  and arduous process of putting women on the same pedestal on which history has put men, built on a foundation of respect, appreciation, and equality .

While putting a woman’s face on the $20 bill is hardly the solution to gender inequality, it is a “long-overdue change [that] could be an important stepping stone for other initiatives promoting gender equality,” as the campaign’s mission statement suggests. The simple act of putting a woman on our nation’s currency would be a profound sign of respect and appreciation for the role that women have played—and continue to play—in shaping the trajectory of our country’s history. It is absolutely vital that we use Women on 20s to catalyze further change in the arena of representation. Finally, a campaign has come along that seeks to put women in their place: on the money.

Art by Tess Dennison.