Women on 20s: Promoting the Value of Gender Equality

Women on 20s: Promoting the Value of Gender Equality

Women on 20s: Promoting the Value of Gender Equality

The U.S. talks a good game of gender equality, but a new nonprofit org says the country needs to put its money where its mouth is.

     
Women on 20s: Promoting the Value of Gender Equality
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No-one could have blamed Harriet Tubman for doing nothing but trying to enjoy the rest of her life after suffering slavery for the first quarter-century of her time on this planet. But Tubman dedicated the rest of her earthly existence to public service, not just as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, but also as a cook, nurse, and spy for the Union Army during the Civil War. Then she took up the cause of women's suffrage.

As an American whose life was in unequivocal service to her country better, Tubman is worthy of a tribute such as adorning American currency. That is just the honor Women on 20s hopes to obtain for her: replacing President Andrew Jackson with Tubman as the face of the $20 bill.

On the one hand, who cares who's on money? In a world with so many serious, present-tense problems, how much energy should we put in to purely honorific concerns? Why not leave well enough alone?

But it's not well enough when females—a full half of the population—are excluded from such honors, as has been the case with currency for most of American history. The subliminal message is that women are not worthy of the same honors bestowed on men, a message that perpetuates the sad truth that, historically, women have been—and continue to be—treated as lesser than men. It's a case of "perception is reality." Perceive someone as lesser, and you'll treat her as such. Honors like adorning currency help shape perception.

That's why Barbara Ortiz Howard founded Women on 20s, ""By having a woman who represented so many values and ideals I felt we would really be empowering young people and women," she says. "[…] Not seeing women represented in our cultural landscape in positive roles sets artificial barriers for women to advance and fulfill their potential.  While others, including Carly Fiorina, may see this as 'meaningless' (as she noted in the first Republican debate), I see it as an essential step in achieving gender equality."

Initially Howard did not see herself as playing such a central role in pressing for change. She had no experience in such things. For the past three decades she has run her own exterior-restoration company, which has kept her plenty busy.

"I did not think I could manage more than my business and personal life," she says, "so at first I sought out others who were involved in centennial [i.e., of women's suffrage] activities, but they already had much on their plates, so I decided to ask friends to help, and a few were interested. […] I just wanted to do this as kind of like a confluence of friends working together with a similar goal—you know, a fun, all-inclusive venture."

Howard targeted the $20 bill for three reasons, the most straightforward of which is that the 20 is one of the most commonly-used pieces of American currency. "If [women] are going to have limited representation," she says, "let it be on one of the most commonly-used bills."

More abstract—but no less significant—is the numerology in play. In 1920 the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, finally giving American women the right to vote. Thus has Howard pushed for getting a woman on the $20 bill in 2020.

"For us [the $20 bill] resonates," she says. "2020 is the 100th anniversary of women finally becoming a part of the democracy. [….] It began with Anne Hutchinson and the Grimke sisters and Margaret Fuller and Abigail Adams. The Founding Mothers sought equality with men, but it still seems to be a rather elusive goal."

The third reason relates to the current face of the $20 note, President Andrew Jackson. As president, Jackson actively opposed the abolition of slavery, and he was a major architect and purveyor of "Indian Removal," a policy that decimated the Native American population. Slavery and the treatment of Native Americans are the two great sins of the early United States, and Jackson was one of our most active sinners. As such, his legacy is mixed, at best—not the sort of person Howard finds deserving of the honor of adorning currency in today's United States, where we are striving to become less Eurocentric and less willing to excuse the wrongs of the past, let alone celebrate those who perpetrated them.

By 2014, partly due to Howard's willingness to draw on her personal credit line and small savings, the nonprofit Women in 20s was a going concern, with Howard and company caucusing and consulting with historians to produce a list of 100 candidates worthy of consideration. From there, the list was winnowed to 50, then 30. Finally, from March 1 to April 5, 2015, all and sundry were given the opportunity to cast three votes for 15 semifinalists, resulting in the selection of Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, and Tubman. In response to various feedback about the appropriateness of including a Native American for final consideration, Women on 20s made an executive decision to add Chief Wilma Mankiller (who had made it into the round of 30) to the final round before re-opening the polls. On Mother's Day, after tallying a total of 609,090 votes, Women on 20s announced Tubman as the winner.

Two days later, Women on 20s petitioned President Barack Obama and the U.S. Department of the Treasury with the results. Howard says they heard back immediately, then took meetings with high-level White House advisers and even Treasurer Rosie Rios. All signs were encouraging, and so it was a bit of a shock when in mid July the Treasury Dept announced its intention to select a woman to appear on the $10 bill, a move the Treasury Dept. says was decided in 2013. And as with Women on 20s' plan, the Treasury Dept. has targeted 2020 for unveiling the new bill.

"We were stunned," says Howard. "It was kind of a lot to take in. […] It was kind of curious that they settled on the 10."

Howard says Women on 20s had follow-up discussions with Rios and other, including about why the $20 bill was more appropriate for change than the $10 bill, but that "was not really where they wanted to go. They just wanted to know who they could feature on the 10."

Howard is dismayed by such tunnel vision. "I don't think [the representation] can be successfully discussed in a vacuum," she says. "Alexander Hamilton, [among] all the Founding Fathers, was an abolitionist, and he founded the Hamilton-Oneida Academy, where Native Americans and settlers first went to school together. [On the other hand,] "Jackson inflicted atrocities on the Native American peoples, which is a legacy that is still playing out today. […] And he didn't even like our banking system. He didn't like central banking and was against paper money. And his fiscal policies actually resulted in a very severe depression in the late 1830s. He really should not be honored on our currency."

Howard says that from the group's discussions with the Treasury Dept. she gets the impression that eventually Jackson will be replaced, but that with the present focus on redesigning the $10 note for a 2020 release, the $20 note will probably have to wait.

"With that kind of a timeframe, taking that much time to make these choices, certainly the 20 is much further down the line," she says. "But we would still encourage them to do it, because we would like to see them remove a symbol of hate and replace it with a symbol of hope, especially in a time when our country could use some kind of healing along those lines, which could help usher in an era of understanding."

One additional shortcoming Howard sees in the Treasury Dept.'s vision is that it turns out their current plans do not call for dedicating a currency note entirely to a woman, with Treasury Secretary Jacob L. Law "ma[king] clear that the image of Alexander Hamilton will remain part of the $10 note."

"The patriarchy still exists with the suggestion that we'll be on the 10 but we'll share it with Hamilton," says Howard. "You think of how American women are so empowered and able to read and in charge, especially relative to the abject conditions of women [in many other] parts of the world, where they're still looked at as chattel. But we still have so far to go. I think in large part it goes back to the fact that for approximately 160 years this country was framed and based on a singular perspective: the Constitution and our laws were written by White men. Until 1920 women were not voting on that legislation. That's part of it. But this predates that. This goes back to the people who wrote our Bibles and our religious tracts, where women have a secondary role to men they're really there to support men. […] These things built up over time, and our behavior takes a while to catch up with it. You know, we still have the father giving away the bride—little things that seem innocuous, but they still perpetuate a certain relationship [between the genders] and limit the way we perceive ourselves."

 

Image by:  Stuart Conner


About the Author

Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California.  Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing. 

His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly, GreaterLongBeach.com, and a variety of academic and literary journals.  HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up.  For more information:  greggorymoore.com

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Last Updated : Wednesday, December 16, 2015