Mar 8, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Why the U.S. lags in putting women on money

Illustration of a collage of a US dollar bill with an empty circle where the portrait would be.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

U.S. society is going cash free sooner than the centuries-old country has put a woman historical figure on a paper bill.

Why it matters: The U.S. lags behind many of its peers that have women on currency — see England's late Queen Elizabeth II and Mexico's Frida Kahlo — though only 46 countries, less than one-third around the world, have done so.

  • Even the U.S. mint, which produces American currency, acknowledges the void.
  • Depicting women on U.S. coins or bills underscores "how we communicate value in our society," Leandra Zarnow, an associate history professor at the University of Houston who specializes in U.S. women's history, told Axios.
  • Plus, neither bill in the U.S. that ever featured a woman was in circulation for very long.

State of play: While the wait to put abolitionist Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill seemingly grinds on, it's actually on schedule.

  • Initially announced during the Obama administration, the Treasury Department is on track to roll out the redesigned bill in 2030, a spokesperson told Axios.

In the meantime, the U.S. Mint in January revealed three new commemorative coins of Tubman, which won't enter circulation.

  • President Biden signed legislation in 2022 calling for it to produce commemorative coins to mark the bicentennial of Tubman's birth in 1822. They began shipping out in February.
  • Tens of thousands have been sold, U.S. Mint spokesperson Brent Thacker told Axios.

Between the lines: U.S. paper bills haven't eternally been devoid of women.

  • The Native American woman Pocahontas briefly appeared on the $20 bill in the 1860s, featured in a group setting surrounded primarily by men.
  • In the late 1800s, Martha Washington became the first — and so far only — woman to have a solo portrait on U.S. paper money, appearing on the $1 silver note.

Zoom out: If you've wanted to see depictions of women on coins since the country's earliest days, look to coins.

  • The first examples featured the mythical figure of Lady Liberty, per the U.S. Mint.
  • In 1893, Queen Isabella of Spain became the first historical woman to appear on U.S. currency.

Almost a century later, the suffragist Susan B. Anthony became the first U.S. woman to feature on coinage.

The American Women Quarters program, which is set to run from 2022 to 2025, is rolling out new coins celebrating American women like Maya Angelou and Anna May Wong.

The big picture: Women's absence from paper money in the U.S. mirrors their broader, limited visibility across the public landscape. Look to the relative lack of monuments and memorials depicting women.

  • They've been more likely to be on coins, which are commemorative and hold symbolic power.
  • But just like women haven't been president, they "haven't made that threshold into being on paper money," Zarnow said.
  • Well, better late than never.
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