Spread the wealth: we need women on our bills

In the first episode of the critically-acclaimed series The Wire, a trio of drug dealers discover that they’ve been given counterfeit money—more accurately, a piece of paper stained with coffee and bearing a hastily drawn portrait of Alexander Hamilton. The leader, D’Angelo becomes irate. “This look like money? Money be green! Money feel like money!” Another dealer defends, “It’s got a dead f**king president on it.” The youngest dealer says, “He ain’t no president.” Incredulously, D’Angelo responds, “N***er, is you crazy? Ain’t no ugly-ass white man get his face on no legal motherf**king tender except the president.”

Of course, Alexander Hamilton was not a U.S. President, but rather the founder and first secretary of the U.S. Treasury. For accountability’s sake, I should also say that Benjamin Franklin, whose esteemed mug graces the $100, entered no office above the governorship of Pennsylvania. However, there is little doubt in anyone’s mind that these men were instrumental in the founding and early governing of our country.

Last year, however, the Treasury made headlines when it announced that in 2020, Hamilton would have to share his spot on the $10 bill with an illustrious American woman. This news was met with both praise and outrage, though the outrage stemmed primarily from choosing the $10 rather than including a woman.

This will not be the first time great American women have been featured on our currency. Martha Washington appeared on silver dollar banknotes in the 1800’s. Sacagawea and Susan B. Anthony both appeared on dollar coins last century. Why these different currencies were taken out of circulation, I don’t know, but I welcome the return of women on our currency.

However, I do think the $10 bill is an odd choice given Hamilton’s significance. The Treasury has already gone on record saying that the $10 bill is the next in line for a facelift, and choosing another bill before its time would cost the country a significant amount of money. The thought is rational, but it doesn’t change the fact that the Treasury is not doing enough. Every man whose face is on our currency had a tremendous impact on our country, but ugly-ass white men aren’t the only ones who had a tremendous impact. We should have people of color and Native Americans in addition to women on our currency.

Since the American public is unlikely to start using $25 or $150 bills, we’d unfortunately have to make space. Thankfully, many of the men on our bills have shady pasts. Washington ($1), Jefferson ($2), and Franklin all owned slaves. Grant ($50) was a drunk and had a mediocre, scandal-marred presidency. Jackson ($20), as noted by many before me, is probably the least qualified of all. For starters, thanks to Jackson’s fighting with the Seminole, we acquired Florida. This point mainly has to do with my animosity toward Florida, but I think it’s fair to point out that Jackson is responsible for giving us the worst state in the Union. Beyond that, he dismantled the Second Bank of the United States, making him the most ironic choice for face time on our currency. Jokes aside, he’s also responsible for the Indian Removal Act, which led to the pseudo-genocidal atrocity that we know today as the Trail of Tears. Fuck that guy. By my count, that just leaves Lincoln and Hamilton in terms of people who don’t have some fatal flaw.

I should qualify that statement. Obviously no human being is perfect, and—once again—each of these individuals has left a significant impact on our country and we should recognize that. However, there are plenty of other amazing citizens who contributed to our nation who didn’t march 6,000 innocents to their deaths. Likewise, why are all of the men currently on our currency from the 1800s? Aside from Grant, not a single person on our bills survived to see the end of slavery in the United States! Ultimately, I think it’s high time we not only honor Americans who lived by the ideals that define who we are as a people, but honor people who lived across all our generations.

So who should be given the honor of appearing on our money? I think the fairest way is to highlight turning points in our nation and individuals emblematic of that change.  What are our nation’s greatest moments? Our Revolution, the Civil War, the suffrage movement, WWII, the civil rights movement, just to name a few. Now the harder part: selecting who embodies these events.

For the Revolutionary War and our nation’s founding, it has to be George Washington. Our capital city is named after him after all. This choice disqualifies Franklin, Jefferson, and Hamilton from the running, but if we have a little engraving of the Constitutional Convention on the back, I think that’ll suffice.

For the Civil War, we also have to stay with an incumbent. Lincoln was the man who rededicated our nation to its values. However, Frederick Douglas also deserves recognition for his advocacy, which helped shape Lincoln’s view. He deserves a place on a bill.

Regarding the suffrage movement, we can point to any number of great women. Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, Sarah Grimké are among the many activists who helped women gain greater equality in the U.S. It’s difficult to choose just one.

While some might immediately jump to FDR when thinking about the era surrounding World War II, I’d be equally happy with Eleanor Roosevelt immortalized on a bill. After FDR revived the U.S. economy and helped defeat Fascism, Eleanor looked to the future. She vigorously lobbied the U.S. to join the United Nations and served as our first delegate. More than that, she oversaw the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In all of these ways, she embodies the very best of what America stands for.

For the civil rights movement, there are a variety of leaders who deserve recognition. Martin Luther King Jr. is an obvious choice. So are Rosa Parks, the Little Rock Nine, Bayard Rustin, Dorothy Height, Roy Wilkin, and John Lewis. Any of these individuals exemplify the courage it takes to pursue justice, even in the face of institutional opposition.

These examples are a small smattering of the individuals who have lived up to the American ideals of liberty, equality, and justice. They embody the diversity of our citizens, the strength of our resolve, and serve as a constant reminder of how far we’ve come in 240 years. Dollar bills may seem like a strange showcase for that legacy, but they are something that the average American handles everyday. When I give my money to a cashier, I want to be reminded of who we are, who we want to be, and the people who have helped us get there. Seems a lot better than looking at some ugly-ass white man.

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