A group that wants to kick Andrew Jackson off the $20 bill and replace him with a woman has, after months of collecting votes, chosen a successor: Harriet Tubman.
Tubman, an abolitionist who is remembered most for her role as a conductor in the “Underground Railroad,” was one of four finalists for the nod from a group of campaigners calling themselves “Women on 20s.” The campaign started earlier this year and has since inspired bills in the House and the Senate.
The other three finalists were former first lady and human rights activist Eleanor Roosevelt; civil rights figure Rosa Parks; and Wilma Mankiller, the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation. Now that voters participating in the campaign have chosen Tubman, Women on 20s will bring a petition with the people’s choice to the White House.
“Our paper bills are like pocket monuments to great figures in our history,” Women on 20s Executive Director Susan Ades Stone said in an e-mailed statement. “Our work won’t be done until we’re holding a Harriet $20 bill in our hands in time for the centennial of women’s suffrage in 2020.”
In all, the group said, it has collected more than 600,000 votes for its campaign. In Tuesday’s White House press briefing, Press Secretary Josh Earnest said that Tubman was a “wonderful choice” for the bill, but stopped short of saying whether the President backs putting Tubman on the $20.
If the government agrees that it’s time to replace Andrew Jackson on the bill, its choice might not end up being Tubman. But the idea of putting a woman on America’s paper currency has attracted some notable support.
“Last week, a young girl wrote to me to ask why aren’t there any women on our currency,” President Obama said in a July speech in Kansas City, before the launch of the Women on 20s voting campaign. “And then she gave me a long list of possible women to put on our dollar bills and quarters and stuff — which I thought was a pretty good idea.”
Although the Women on 20s campaign plans to petition the White House, it is the Treasury Department that ultimately makes decisions on which bills feature which portraits. The last overhaul of paper money portraits by the department was in the 1920’s, when Jackson replaced Grover Cleveland on the $20.
U.S. Treasurer Rosie Rios also commented on the campaign in late April. “What I can say?” Rios told Fortune. “We’re engaging in a collaborative process to move the discussion forward.” Rios noted that Treasury Secretary Jack Lew is ultimately in charge of currency design.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) introduced a bill in April that would ask the Treasury Department to convene a panel of citizens to discuss the issue of putting a woman’s face on America’s paper money. The panel’s findings would then go to the secretary of the Treasury. “That’s the way it was done back in the 1920s,” Shaheen told The Post last month.
Shaheen also noted that her staffers spoke to the Treasury Department about the potential cost of changing a bill’s portrait. The department makes minor design changes to paper money every seven to 10 years for security reasons, the staffers found. The $20 is “overdue for that redesign,” Shaheen said. Her office concluded that changing the portrait as part of one of those redesigns means there’s “not a lot of cost involved” in putting a woman on the bill.
Shaheen, for her part, has declined to say if she has a personal choice for which woman should appear on the $20. “I think there are, going back to the revolution, lots of women whose contributions have been significant and have not gotten the same kind of attention,” she said.
Tubman is certainly one of those women. After she escaped the slavery she was born into in Maryland, Tubman returned to the South at great risk to herself, over and over again. She made 19 trips to the South, rescuing 300 slaves from captivity by most accounts, although historically documented details of Tubman’s life and work are sparse. She is said to have a perfect record as a conductor for the Underground Railroad.
A historical marker on the Dorchester County, Maryland, property where the Brodess Plantation stood. Tubman lived and worked on the property in her early years. (Dorchester County Tourism Department)
During the Civil War, Tubman worked for the Union army, at first as a cook and nurse. Eventually, she was recruited to work as a spy for the Union. As the Smithsonian magazine notes, Tubman became the first woman in U.S. history to lead a military expedition. Her 1863 mission with Col. James Montgomery at Combahee River helped to free more than 750 slaves, the magazine writes.
Despite all this, Tubman struggled to receive any compensation from the government for her time serving the Union. She successfully petitioned Congress for a raise on the pension she received for the service of her second husband, initially $8 a month, to $25 a month. However, she was paid just $20 a month until her death in 1913.
In 2003, Congress passed an appropriations bill that included a little over $11,000 in back pay for the pension Tubman received. However, as Ward DeWitt, then executive director of the Harriet Tubman Home Inc., told the New York Times in 2003, Tubman still never received a pension for her own considerable military service.
The Women on 20s campaign aimed to change the portrait on the $20 bill for a couple of reasons: First, the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote is in 2020. And second, while Jackson may have been a relatively uncontroversial choice for the honor when he was selected in 1929, he was an enthusiastic supporter of policies that were harmful to the Native American population, including the measure that led to the Trail of Tears.
For that latter reason, Women on 20s is not the first to suggest that it might be time to retire the Jackson $20 bill.
article by Abby Ohlheiser via washingtonpost.com