On paper, it doesn’t look like it would be difficult to change the faces that greet us on dollar bills whenever we pull out our wallets. The Treasury Secretary has unilateral authority to banish Franklin from the $100 or Lincoln from the five spot whenever he wants; Congress also has the power to change the portraits used on U.S. currency. The possibilities for new monetary muses are nearly limitless — the only requirement is that they be dead, just like the luminaries chosen for stamps. There’s also an expectation that the portraits will be familiar faces from history.
However, the process must be harder than it looks, because the Treasury hasn’t retired a portrait since 1929, when Andrew Jackson replaced Grover Cleveland — which has everyone wondering what will happen with a new campaign to get a woman on the $20.
Plenty of people have tried to change a portrait. Most of these attempts involved Ronald Reagan. In 2004, Grover Norquist tried to boot Alexander Hamilton from the $10 and replace him with the conservative icon; Senator Mitch McConnell thought the idea was a great one. “Hamilton was a nice guy and everything, but he wasn’t president,” Norquist told USA Today. At the same time, a few House Republicans were trying to get Reagan put on the $20. Six years after those efforts failed, Representative Patrick McHenry sponsored legislation to get Reagan on the $50.
“There’s an inherent conservatism when it comes to money here,” notes Matthew Wittmann, assistant curator of American coins and currency at the American Numismatic Society.
A new group has decided to try a different tack by advancing a new portrait that is not Ronald Reagan. Women on 20s has started a campaign to get a woman on money that Americans use (unlike $1 coins) — something that even President Obama has said is a “pretty good idea.” They’ve even picked the perfect guy to kick off currency — Andrew Jackson, once best known for military prowess, and now remembered for causing the Trail of Tears.
“Andrew Jackson folks would complain,” says Daniel Feller, an expert on our seventh president at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, “but there aren’t many Andrew Jackson folks left. I don’t know who in government would be against it.”
However, the problem was never going to be complaints about keeping Jackson on the $20; it was always going to be about narrowing the entire universe of eligible women to put on the bill to one in a town where agreeing is often a laughable dream, and everyone has different reasons for wanting to try something new with currency — or keep it the same.
When the Treasury thinks about redesigning money, it isn’t about the politics. The department — along with the Federal Reserve, the Secret Service, and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing — is always thinking about how to best stop people from counterfeiting it. (Everyone forgets, but the Secret Service was created to protect money, not the president.) That’s why dollar bills have slowly morphed over time, with stripes and nearly unnoticed whizbangs continually cluttering the currency, and the important men in them shifting in their invisible seats and switching up their stare. A Treasury official, who stressed the department’s aim to prevent unauthorized production of money, was unable to talk about any specific campaigns to change currency design “or about anything political.”
Other groups have successfully lobbied to change other parts of dollar bills recently, but it took lots of money or a winning court case. The D.C. District Court decided in 2008 that the Treasury must “take such steps as may be required to provide meaningful access to United States currency for blind and other visually impaired persons,” siding with the American Council of the Blind. Designing a new bill can take a long time; seven years after the court case, the Treasury knows that the $10 will be the first bill with tactile features, but they’re still working on making sure the design in super counterfeit-proof. The $1, on the other hand, has managed to avoid redesign for more than 75 years, thanks in part to the efforts of the National Automatic Merchandising Association — the vending-machine lobby. If the $1 bill were redesigned, all vending machines currently handing out Mountain Dews to the masses would need to be redesigned as well. The Treasury isn’t too worried about the $1 bill being counterfeited, either. So George stays the same, the Dorian Gray of the dollar bills.
Women on 20s wanted to avoid getting into politics — especially Congress, according to Susan Ades Stone, executive director of the campaign. They didn’t want to create a new denomination, because that would require congressional approval. They didn’t want to try to get a revolving series of women on a bill, because that would likely trigger a review process. They wanted to pick something within the Treasury’s budget, and don’t plan to approach the department with their plan until their supporters have narrowed down the list of 15 portrait candidates to one. More than 180,000 people have voted, and it’s hard to find a publication that hasn’t written about the idea.
“With the environment in Washington, we wanted to do something as realistic and nonpolitical as possible,” Stone said. Even if Women on 20s tries to eliminate all politics from the process, it’s easy to see how Washington could inject it back in. Everyone won’t agree on the woman chosen to replace Andrew Jackson. Margaret Sanger, who helped popularize birth control, is one of the women being voted on in Women on 20s online poll. You can imagine the Treasury being hesitant to court the inevitable controversy that would come with her being named as the face of the $20. Other women in the running include Betty Friedan, Sojourner Truth, Rachel Carson, and Rosa Parks — all important, some equally bound to cause political tantrums. Wittmann has offered Amelia Earhart as the ideal portrait, citing her popularity and apolitical place in memory.
Even if the apolitical ideal could be chosen, it’s impossible to imagine that Congress would allow the Treasury to make such an big change without their input. The Treasury would probably want to defer to Congress in these matters anyway, unless they learned that putting a woman on the $20 was the best way to repel counterfeiters. At that point, a million different lobbies and groups’ desires would begin mingling with lawmakers’ own biases and hopes in choosing the first woman to appear on a dollar, and everyone would remember why nothing has changed since 1929. Knowing Congress, this debate could descend into another failed attempt to get Reagan immortalized on a bank note.
However, hundreds of thousands of people pushing for change is no small thing. Wittman is “cautiously optimistic” about the campaign. “It seems a little bit strange,” he says, noting that Australia puts a woman and man on every denomination of paper currency, “it seems a little bit backwards that the United States can’t find someone to honor beyond this small subset of founding fathers and dead presidents.”
Stone says that Women on 20s has “already succeeded” by getting people to talk about the famous women she would like to honor. “We’ve done exactly what we aimed to do — get a lot of people thinking.” Feller, the Andrew Jackson scholar, is also pleased that people are talking about this issue, although for different reasons. “I get to talk more to newspaper people who don’t care about what I think about the 1830s.”