Despite generations of inclusion in our democracy, women have a lot of catching up to do as of today, the 95th anniversary of the date we were at long last given the right to vote. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew had a golden opportunity to move things in the right direction for the 51% — by deciding finally to put an unsung female hero on our male-only paper currency. Unfortunately, he’s on the road to blowing it.
This is a national movement we’re proud to have inspired — holding an online poll that attracted more than 600,000 votes to replace Andrew Jackson on the widely used $20 bill. In a stroke of poetic justice, freed slave, freedom fighter and suffragist Harriet Tubman was the people’s choice to replace the slave-trading, Indian-killing seventh President. Schoolchildren pumped about being a part of historic change and minting some new role models were among the most enthusiastic participants in that campaign.
From the beginning, we were under the impression that it was the $20 bill that was next up for redesign; it said so on the Treasury Department’s own website. Overhauling that bill would have made perfect sense. For too long, with Jackson’s image spewing from every ATM, we’ve been sending the world the wrong message about what we value.
What’s more, the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage arrives in 2020, and issuing a new $20 bill in time to celebrate and value women’s contributions to our democracy would be natural.
Imagine our surprise and disappointment when in June, Lew revealed his plans — with barely a mention of our half-million-strong grass-roots campaign that had taken social and mainstream media by storm. He said the woman he chooses will go not on the $20 bill, but on the far less circulated $10 — and will somehow share that bill with its current occupant, the revered architect of our democracy and financial system, Alexander Hamilton.
By not evicting Jackson (who, ironically, despised paper money and Hamilton’s central banking system), diminishing Hamilton and giving women shared billing, Lew managed to please almost no one and offend many. By any calculus, half a ten hardly equals a twenty.
Meanwhile, Lew launched his own campaign to supposedly engage the public in the redesign process. While students and teachers were away on summer vacation, he called for town halls across the nation and invited people to weigh in on social media about how to make the new currency best reflect the theme of “democracy.”
What he got was unrelenting criticism across new and established media for choosing the $10 bill over the $20, including from former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Lew and U.S. Treasurer Rosie Rios began conducting carefully orchestrated “open houses” and closed-door round tables, while releasing only the most positive comments on the Treasury website and social media platforms.
Lew defensively told reporters he had expected to stimulate lively debate, but had no intention of reversing his decision. How ironic to ask the public to share ideas for symbols of democracy without employing a genuinely democratic process.
The Treasury Department says the $10 bill was chosen as next for redesign strictly for security reasons to foil counterfeiters, and has been on the drawing board for two years already. But by the department’s own estimates, the new $10 won’t even be in our hands before 2022 at the earliest. Why? Because our paper money is a technological marvel of multiple interwoven security features that are redesigned from scratch for each new bill.
What’s more, the government is now bound by the courts to make future bills accessible to the visually impaired, and designing a durable tactile paper is a challenge.
To us, 10 years from concept to market seems a failure of will and a capitulation to the glacially slow pace of the federal bureaucracy. Maybe Treasury needs Elon Musk’s or Sergey Brin’s cell phone number. We need to get rid of Jackson now, put women on our bills, and we need to do it by 2020 to make our money represent the diversity and inclusion we aspire to as a nation.
Lew’s own bid to lead a national conversation is a farce. On Wednesday, Women’s Equality Day, the group we’re proud to have founded, Women On 20s, is convening its own free and open town halls in more than a half-dozen locales across the nation. Anyone can register for the New York City event. Maybe Lew would like to attend. If so, he’ll have to hurry, because seating is limited.