Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced Wednesday that Harriet Tubman will replace former President Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill, moving Jackson to the back of the bill where he’ll accompany an image of the White House. While the Treasury has been in talks for years about honoring a woman on U.S. currency, it was widely speculated that it would be the $10 bill that would undergo a face swap. But as it turns out, the back of the $10 bill will now be revamped to include the faces of several of the leaders of the women’s suffrage movement, and Alexander Hamilton will remain on the front.
This great news on so many counts. Tubman was a black abolitionist who escaped slavery and went on to play an integral role in the Underground Railroad, personally helping to free a reported 70 slaves. And she was no stranger to understanding the value of money—in 1856 there was a reward of $40,000 posted for her capture, an amount that would translate to over $1.1 million today. Reportedly, when she overheard two men reading her Wanted poster, which noted that she was illiterate, she promptly pulled out a book and pretended to read it, successfully avoiding being identified.
Less than a year ago, two Congressional representatives led a group of 64 lawmakers in urging U.S. Department of Treasury Secretary Jack Lew to retain Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill, stating “it is a disappointing message that Alexander Hamilton, one of the most influential interpreters of the U.S. Constitution, a passionate advocate for the abolition of slavery, and the founder of the nation’s financial system, will be removed from our currency while President Andrew Jackson, a slaveholder responsible for the Trail of Tears, fierce opponent of the central banking system, and paper currency, retains his place on the $20 bill.” Clearly those voices were heard, as Jackson will be replaced by Tubman on the $20, and Hamilton remains on the $10. It's also true that President Hamilton's recent influx into modern society, thanks to the Lin-Manuel Miranda Broadway phenomenon, Hamilton, helped him keep his place on the currency. The New York Times reports that Manual himself spoke to Treasury Secretary Lew in support of Hamilton staying put.
Upon hearing the announcement this week that Tubman would grace the front of the $20 bill, founder of the group Women on 20s Barbara Ortiz Howard said: “We are delighted that the parties involved in the decision are united in their commitment to the goal of honoring women in this most visible fashion. It’s high time to get the party started.” Tubman was the winner of an online poll that Women on 20s conducted in 2015 asking people who they thought should be the first woman on U.S. currency.
Of course the decision to put Tubman on the face of the $20 bill is not without some controversy. While Lew did not give a specific timeline for circulation of the new currency, stating only that it would be “as soon as technology and security issues would allow,” some reports indicate that the Tubman $20 won’t see the light of day until 2030, a timeframe that Howard says is “a wait we're not willing to endure.”
For now, though, we celebrate the historic decision to include women on both the $20 and the $10, and we thank those women—Tubman as well as the fighters for our right to vote—for the trails they blazed.