Lately, the chorus of voices calling for gender equality and equal pay for equal work seems to be building like a flash mob. And next week, to pump up the volume yet another notch, there’s National Equal Pay Day. All of this attention on an age-old problem is good and I’m all for seeing trending hashtags like #ask4more and #notthereyet. But one of my favorite Chinese proverbs goes, “Talk doesn’t cook rice.” People need something they can do – preferably something small and simple that can add up to something big – at the same time lawmakers spin in endless circles, unable to agree over whether there’s a gap at all. And maybe that’s why over the past 5 weeks, a simple campaign called Women On 20s has inspired hundreds of thousands of people who care about equality to turn talk into votes. Those proxies may just convince President Obama that it’s high time to put a woman’s face on American paper currency. And that can be the historic start of greater changes to come.
The gender gap is nowhere more apparent than on our paper money. All of our bills feature men: Georges, Abes, Alexanders, Andrews, Ulysses, Bens and so on, and those portraits haven’t changed since 1929. They were great men, indeed, founding fathers and visionaries who laid the solid foundation of this country. But we’ve changed enormously as a people in those 86 years. While there still may be a disparity between what we want as a nation and where we are, we’re a more inclusive and diverse society now, and our money should reflect that. Women have become major drivers of our economy, earning nearly one-third of the nation’s annual income and controlling as much as 80 percent of consumer purchases. Is it really so much to ask that our currency graduate to the 21st century with, at the very least, one commonly used bill bearing a woman’s portrait?
Women On 20s proposes, as our name suggests, that the bill to change is the one featuring the seventh president of the United States, Andrew Jackson. The $20 bill. It’s overdue for a redesign to prevent counterfeiting. But more importantly, Jackson’s legacy has become more of a blot on American history than a record to revere, owing to his Indian Removal Act of 1830 that drove thousands of Cherokee Indians to their deaths in a “Trail of Tears” during their forced relocation Westward. Yes, Jackson is rightly remembered as a man of the people and a champion of individual freedom. But he was also a treaty breaker, rogue soldier and slave trader. If that isn’t enough, Jackson was a fierce opponent of central banking and paper currency, favoring gold and silver coin, which he called “legitimate” money. An ironic choice, indeed, for enshrinement on the $20 bill.
If Jackson could speak from his grave, he might suggest a swap with Susan B. Anthony, whose dollar coin was minted for just three years between 1978 and 1999, or Sacagawea, who took her place and has been in limited production ever since. Both are more familiar as tokens used in vending machines. Women have played a huge part in transforming our nation into who we are today. They deserve to be valued and honored in more than a token way. Boys can look around and readily see themselves reflected in the monuments we erect to greatness – statues, postage stamps, national holidays and paper money. Girls deserve their monuments, too, as reminders of whom they can grow up to be. The Republican Congressman who in 2010 sought unsuccessfully to install Ronald Reagan’s portrait on the $50 note said, “Every generation deserves its own heroes.” It seems we have a lot of catching up to do.
Fortunately, the process for redesigning our existing denominations is not very complicated and doesn’t require a messy act of Congress. The Treasury Secretary has the authority to make such changes and has the funds already appropriated to do so. By U.S. code, the people featured on paper money must be dead, of great stature and “known” to the public. And that’s where Women On 20s comes in. Aside from our stated mission, we want to make “known” the many great women who’ve been behind the curtain for too long. If we get going soon, a new women’s $20 can be in circulation by 2020 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. What a celebration that would be.
So since March 1st, the beginning of Women’s History Month, we have been inviting the public to visit the virtual voting booth at our website to help choose a heroic woman the next generation will get to know on a first-name basis. More than 256,000 people voted in a five-week Primary Round on a ballot of 15 candidates that included Rachel Carson, Sojourner Truth and Alice Paul. Voters were asked to choose three. Now, Eleanor Roosevelt, Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks have advanced to a Final Round, along with Cherokee Chief Wilma Mankiller, who was added to the ballot by popular demand to give a choice of a Native American to replace Andrew Jackson. This time people will choose just one candidate. More than 100,000 votes have been cast in the first 72 hours of this round. The eventual winner will be presented to the White House as the people’s choice, perhaps as early as the end of this month. And by then perhaps the hashtag #byebyeAndrew will be the one that’s trending.
The initiative shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to President Obama. Last summer at a public appearance in Kansas City, he cited a letter from 9-year-old Sofia, who recently came onboard as our junior ambassador, who asked him why there “weren’t any women on our money” and she proposed a list of names. With a broad smile on his face, the President told the crowd he thought it was “a pretty good idea.” We think it’s even better than that. It’s time to cook the rice.
Cast your vote NOW at Women on 20s, and follow the campaign on Facebook and Twitter.
Susan Ades Stone is a journalist, and executive director of Women On 20s, which she launched in 2014 with her friend Barbara Ortiz Howard, a mother and a construction business owner, whose dream has been to see this change happen.