W2O: The Elements of Equality
Women On 20s is a non-profit, grassroots organization which aimed to compel historic change by convincing President Obama and the Secretary of the Treasury to put a woman's face on our $20 banknote.
Our work ahead will be to make sure the next administration stays on track with currency change promises to promote and further elements of equality.
Building a Movement for Change
There were a number of premises for asking for the $20: representation of women on the commonly used $20, the idea that the $20 would remind people of 1920 when women won the right to vote and were included in the democracy, and the replacement of Andrew Jackson, a symbol of intolerance, with a symbol of hope and perseverance. The new $20 would be an element of equality that ultimately would strengthen us all.
The public chose a nominee from an original slate of 15 inspiring American women in history in two rounds of voting. Over a period of 10 weeks, more than 600,000 ballots were cast and Harriet Tubman emerged as the winner. On May 12, 2015, Women On 20s presented a petition to President Obama and the Treasury Department informing them of the results of the election and encouraging Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew to use his authority to make this change in time to have a new bill in circulation before the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in 2020.
No one could have imagined the journey that would unfold over the next year.
At first, the Treasury Department had other plans, namely to redesign the $10 bill due to counterfeiting concerns. Because this bill was next up for redesign, on June 18, 2015, Secretary Lew announced that the $10 bill would be the first to feature the portrait of a woman. Treasury’s announcement fell short of the goal W20 sought. We weren’t convinced even two $10s could equal a $20. And we weren’t the only ones who wanted to see a different change. Soon many more joined our ranks, campaigning alongside us, proclaiming that if there was going to be a change, it should be to the $20, leaving the nation’s first Treasury Secretary and newly rediscovered hero Alexander Hamilton on the $10.
From the day of Treasury’s announcement and for ten long months, W20 advised Treasury privately and publicly and campaigned heartily to replace the slave trader with the freed slave and freedom fighter Harriet Tubman, while the public echoed our calls for equality and fair representation. We held town halls, real and virtual. Our commissioned art for the reverse side of the bill seems to have inspired Treasury to consider telling more of our American story by featuring the great women behind the suffrage movement. Meanwhile, the success of the Lin Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” on Broadway made the “$10 founding father’s” contributions all the more appreciated. As a result, Treasury got swamped with the message that changing the $10 redesign was wrongheaded. We were all hungry for meaningful change.
All the while, Treasury officials insisted that the $20 was not up for redesign and that we needed to focus on the $10 alone, asking the public to weigh in on which woman should be on the $10. Women On 20s continued to insist that putting Harriet Tubman on the $10 would be considered a demotion by our supporters as that banknote is not used internationally and represents only five percent of all bills in circulation.
After more than a year of campaigning to convince Secretary Lew to undertake a simultaneous redesign of the $20 bill, Women On 20s applauds the Treasury Department’s announcement on April 20, 2016 that it will accelerate production of a new $20, replacing the portrait of Andrew Jackson with the portrait of the American hero, Harriet Tubman. The news that the Federal Reserve Board is committed to fast-tracking the issuance of the $20 after its new design is revealed in 2020 is especially important.
The choice of freed slave and freedom fighter Tubman for the $20 is an exciting one, given the result of our online poll in the Spring of 2015. Not only did she devote her life to freedom and racial equality, she served as a strategist, scout and nurse in the Civil War, and fought for women’s rights alongside the nation’s leading suffragists.
We also laud and celebrate the proposed changes to the non-portrait sides of the $10 and $5 bank notes. As cited on the Treasury website, the new $10 will celebrate the history of the women’s suffrage movement and feature images of Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Alice Paul, some of the most key figures in our commissioned illustration. The front of the new $10 will retain the portrait of Alexander Hamilton. The new $5 will honor historic events that occurred at the Lincoln Memorial in service of our democracy, and will feature Martin Luther King, Jr., Marian Anderson, and Eleanor Roosevelt. The front of the new $5 will retain the portrait of President Lincoln.
We are gratified to have sparked a far-reaching, open conversation about the symbols and historical figures that define us as a nation and are critical elements of equality. The commitments of Secretary Lew, Federal Reserve Board Chair Janet Yellen, U.S. Treasurer Rosie Rios and BEP Director Len Olijar to include women in the portrait gallery of paper currency in the near future is cause for pride and celebration for what a grassroots citizen campaign can accomplish.