Why the Treasury Decided to Put a Woman on the $10 Bill Instead of the $20

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The U.S. Treasury announced on Thursday that there will be a woman on paper currency in 2020 — the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment. Just not the denomination advocates expected. 

Although organizers have been pressuring the Treasury Department to depose Andrew Jackson and install a new woman leader on the $20, the federal government has decided to put a woman on the $10 — which was already in the process of being the first redesigned note in the new series of dollar bills. If any other denomination were chosen, America would probably have had to wait a long time before getting to see a woman among all those dead presidents and founding fathers that have remained unchanged since 1929; the first note in the last series of new dollar bills was released in 2003, the last one wasn’t ready until a decade later. 

Barbara Ortiz Howard, the founder of the advocacy group Women on 20s — which deserves a lot of the credit for making everyone care about the lack of women on U.S. currency this year — says her organization is pleased that a woman will appear on paper currency for the first time since the late 19th century. At a press conference on Thursday, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew gave Women on 20s a quick shout-out: “We thank you for your passion and your citizenship.”

It’s clear Women on 20s is a bit disappointed, too, however, since some of their demands seem to have been lost in translation. The group targeted the $20 because of Jackson’s waning popularity in historical memory — and, more practically, because ATMs have basically rendered the denomination into royalty. The to-be-determined woman on the $10 won’t even get the bill to herself. The first Treasury Secretary will still appear in a minor capacity on the new $10 — in the security features, perhaps.

To which Howard responds, “We need to have our own exclusive bill.”

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Photo: T.J. Kirkpatrick/2015 Getty Images

This initially surprising outcome — wait, we’re getting rid of Hamilton instead of Jackson?! — would have been easy to predict if those hoping to make over the $20 had remembered one important rule. As Daily Intelligencer reported in March, when the Treasury Department and its pals over at the Secret Service, the Federal Reserve, and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing thinks about redesigning money, stopping counterfeiters is the top priority. Any political concerns about currency are addressed only if they can be found to aid in that mission, or at least if there’s room for the concerns to piggyback on preexisting plans. 

In spring 2012, the Treasury decided that the $10 would be the next bill to get a makeover, given counterfeiting threats. (The $10 was last updated in 2006; the newest $20 first appeared in 2003.) And given how long it takes the Treasury to turn the bill into a hard-to-counterfeit palimpsest, layered with security features and impossibly tiny type, the $10 seemed like the perfect home for all the political changes that people were already impatient for right now.

Besides being the first paper currency to feature a woman, the new $10 will also be the first bill with tactile features to help the visually impaired. In case you had any doubts about how long it takes to design a new dollar bill, the D.C. District Court told the Treasury Department way back in 2008 that it needed to “take such steps as may be required to provide meaningful access to United States currency for blind and other visually impaired persons,” meaning that it will take more than a decade for the legally mandated change to happen.

Women on 20s would have never seen a woman on paper currency by its 19th amendment anniversary deadline if the $20 were chosen. Although some have argued it would have been better to put a woman on the $20, regardless of the time frame, it is very easy to imagine a scenario where the Treasury was pilloried for announcing to put a woman on the $20 by 2030.

There’s another bureaucratic reason the Treasury Department probably didn’t feel obligated to change to $20, despite the cri de coeur. It turns out that discussions about putting a woman on paper currency predate the "replace Jackson" fervor of the past few months. Back in 2012, U.S. Treasurer Rosie Rios first brought up the idea of putting a woman on paper currency, according to a Treasury spokesperson. The idea was endorsed by former Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, although the formal decision about where and when a woman would appear wasn’t made until this month. 

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A $1 silver certificate from 1866 featuring first lady Martha Washington.Photo: Joe Raedle/2008 Getty Images

The most difficult part of putting a woman on the $10 has yet to come, as the Treasury hasn’t decided who will appear on the bill. Lew — who gets final say in the decision — has asked the public to submit their ideas with the hashtag #TheNew10, and a whole universe of new groups have begun lobbying not to get a woman on currency, but the specific woman they admire most. The Red Cross is pushing Clara Barton, the Girl Scouts have nominated its founder, Helen Hunt jokingly put forward Helen Hunt, and plenty of people are still begging the Treasury to just leave Hamilton alone. Howard hopes that Lew will pick Harriet Tubman, the winner of Women on 20s’ “Who should be on the $20?” poll.

The theme of the next series of redesigned bills is the somewhat vague “Democracy.” At this point, the portrait doesn’t have anything to do with the theme, given that the process has already become a case study in democracy — some may complain the process has been too slow, compromises and necessities of timing may have left everyone wondering whether they should feel victorious or defeated, but in the end, it’s a whole lot better than no change at all.

Those pushing for a new $20 who were more familiar with the U.S. government’s inability to let anyone win everything on their wish list, like New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen, were pretty excited by the news for this very reason. The sponsor of the Women on the Twenty Act said in a statement on Thursday, “While it might not be the twenty dollar bill, make no mistake, this is a historic announcement and a big step forward. Young girls across this country will soon be able to see an inspiring woman on the ten dollar bill who helped shape our country into what it is today and know that they too can grow up and do something great for their country.”