What’s (Not) in Your Wallet?

What’s (Not) in Your Wallet?

[left: For those tired of waiting for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing to put Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill, do-it-yourself stamps are available online (Provided by Michael Nighan); right David Kramer’s 1979 Susan B. Anthony One  Dollar coin, value approx. $1.10. All other images provided by Nighan]

By Michael J. Nighan

 Ever since the Civil War, when the US government first printed paper currency, women on our folding money have been as scarce as (insert your favorite political/social/economic simile here).   Indeed, in the past century and a half only two non-allegorical women have appeared on our folding money; Pocahontas on a $20 bill issued in 1865 (complete with her father, thus keeping the bill in compliance with those local laws which prohibited women from appearing in public unless accompanied by their father or husband), and Martha Washington, who appeared on several one dollar bills between 1886 and 1896.  Since then it’s been zilch, squat, bupkis, nada, nil, and zip as far as women appearing on our greenbacks has been concerned. (1)

The first women on United States paper currency

Then, in 2014, while giving a speech in Kansas City,  President Obama  mentioned that, “a young girl wrote to ask me why aren’t there any women on our currency, and then she gave me like a long list of possible women to put on our dollar bills and quarters and stuff—which I thought was a pretty good idea.”

As a result, there was understandable celebrating in many quarters when a year later Obama’s Treasury Secretary, Jack Lew, announced plans to redesign the $10 bill and to replace Alexander Hamilton with a women.  A series of public meetings and round tables were announced to gain input and generate public support.  “We are asking the American people to tell us what democracy means to them.  Their feedback will shape what the new bill looks like”, said Lew.

Lew also stated that he planned to announce sometime in 2016 which woman would be selected for the honor.   Not surprisingly, Susan B. Anthony was immediately seen as one of the leading contenders.

But lost in this process was how 44 years earlier a campaign to get Anthony on our paper money was undertaken…….. and eventually abandoned.

(Of course, between 1979 and 1981, with a reprise in 1999, Susan B appeared on an ill-fated one dollar coin.  One of the US Mint’s lesser brainstorms.  A coin that no one wanted.  A coin that no cash register had room for.  A coin that didn’t even rate its own reverse design but was stuck with a recycled one taken from the previous, and equally flawed, Eisenhower dollar.  A coin so ill-designed that it was often mistaken for a quarter.  The less said about that fiasco the better.  Now back to the banknotes.)

Part of The Simpson’s satirical look at the ill-fated Susan B. Anthony dollar coin

Although the $2 bill had been around since 1862, printing of the notes had been discontinued in 1966 due to an almost total lack of public interest in using the bills.  Then, in 1971 Rep. Seymour Halpern (R-NY) introduced a bill in Congress to resurrect the deuce note, replacing Thomas Jefferson with Susan B. Anthony.  The legislation was co-sponsored by Rep. Frank Horton of Rochester, and Reps. Shirley Chisholm and “Battling Bella” Abzug of New York City.  Halpern claimed support of 31 members of Congress, 17 governors and 25 national groups representing 50 million women:

“This bill does not represent a patronizing attempt on the part of 32 members of Congress to produce a milksop for satisfying the demands of many millions of American women who are challenging the very basic concepts of their role in society. Nothing could be further from the truth. This bill was introduced for the same reason that any similar legislation is brought before Congress – to honor a person who deserves national recognition.”

However, Halpern admitted that, given the fact that about the only remaining use for the $2 bill was at the race track, “if Susan B. Anthony were alive today, she probably would turn down the honor.  As anti-vice as she was pro-vote, Miss Anthony might not have liked being slapped down at the $2 betting window.”

Amusingly enough, in response to a request from Halpern for the support of California governor Ronald Reagan, a spokesman for Reagan, citing Anthony’s arrest and conviction for illegally voting in 1872, stated that, “As the Governor opposes social change through illegal acts, he must decline his support for your proposal.”

Negotiations between Halpern and a South Dakota representative who sought to replace Jefferson’s Monticello on the reverse of the $2 bill with an illustration of Mount Rushmore came to naught, and both bills eventually died in committee.  Not everyone, including some who would be expected to support the proposal, was heartbroken.  The superstition of the $2 bill as a harbinger of bad luck was still in the back of some minds (this bad luck allegedly could be negated by tearing off a corner of the bill.)  Also, the bill had a reputation in some quarters of being a “whore note” because of an association with the payment of prostitutes for services rendered.   “When we learned about that, we weren’t as interested” said Roberta Lachuisa , president of the Susan B. Anthony Memorial.

Associated Press wire photo proposed design for a Susan B. Anthony $2 bill – 1971

But the $2 bill did wasn’t dead yet.  In 1975, it was announced by Secretary of the Treasury William Simon that the bill would be resurrected as part of the nation’s bicentennial commemoration.  But Susan B. was out and Jefferson’s less-than-smiling face would remain on the front, with a reproduction of John Trumbull’s famous painting, “The Declaration of Independence” on the reverse.

Responding to this announcement, Democrat & Chronicle columnist Tom Green took the position that Rochester’s only viable recourse to this slighting of Anthony was to secede from the Union, taking Kodak, Xerox, Genesee beer, French’s mustard and Gerber’s baby food with us! (2)

Susan B. loses out to Tom Jefferson – 1975 (from Democrat and Chronicle files)

Now fast-forward to 2015…

Unbeknownst to the public, in March 2015, Obama’s Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew had sent his boss a memo proposing that Susan B. Anthony be added to the $10 bill –  then being scheduled for redesign to add anti-counterfeiting security features – as a replacement for Hamilton.  Obama or Lew ultimately decided that the more politic course would be to seek public input for the bill redesign rather then unilaterally adding Anthony.

The suggestions came in by the car load.  Among them Harriet Tubman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and of course, Susan B. Anthony.  (Interestingly enough, all three eventually lived in Western New York).

Possible design if Susan B. Anthony had been added to the $20 bill (image provided by the Littleton Coin Company)

At about this time a grassroots organization, Women on 20s (W20) sprang up, its goal to skip the $10 bill altogether and focus on replacing Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill with a woman, the idea being that, the $20 would remind people of 1920 when women won the right to vote and were included in the democracy, and the replacement of Andrew Jackson, a symbol of intolerance, with a symbol of hope and perseverance.” 

 Based on the results of public polling and the votes of 600,000 responders, W20 petitioned Obama in May 2015 to replace Jackson with Harriet Tubman.

Meanwhile, in July 2015 the National Susan B. Anthony Museum and House hosted a town meeting to discuss their plans for promoting Anthony for the new $10 bill.  Said Deborah Hughes, the museum’s executive director, “There are many people who we could pick who had a moment in time.  But Susan B. Anthony devoted her entire life to what’s best about democracy.  She felt passionately that the vision inherent in the founding of this country had not been realized.”

But the Tubman supporters were quicker off the mark.  In that same month, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) introduced the Harriet Tubman Currency Tribute Act of 2015, proposed legislation that directed the Secretary of the Treasury to ensure that all newly issued $10 notes bear Tubman’s likeness.   Mikulski had been a long-time backer of measures to honor Tubman given that she had been born and lived as a slave in Maryland for almost 30 years before escaping to freedom in 1849.    However, within a few months events made Mikulski’s legislation superfluous and it disappeared into the Senate achieves.

On April 20, 2016, Secretary Lew announced that, as a result of massive public input,  the plan to honor an American woman on the $10 bill had been significantly expanded to include the $10 bill, the $20 bill AND the $5, the  $20 bill to be redesigned first, with Andrew Jackson being moved to the back of the bill, replaced on the front by Harriet Tubman, the former slave and Underground Railroad “conductor” who had repeatedly risked her life by traveling south to lead scores of escaping slaves to freedom.  The change unofficially set for 2020, in order to commemorate the 100th. anniversary of the ratification of the 19th. Amendment granting women the right to vote in state and federal elections.

But in recognition that Tubman was only one of numerous women who deserved the honor of being depicted on our paper money, Lew also announced that after the $20 bill had been revamped, the $10 bill would be redesigned, and although Alexander Hamilton would remain on the front (3)  the reverse would depict several leader’s in the women’s rights movement; Susan B. Anthony,  Elizabeth Cady Stanton,  Alice Paul,  Lucretia Mott and Sojourner Truth, situated against a backdrop of the US Treasury Building where thousands of members of the women’s suffrage movement had staged a demonstration in 1913.

Mott, Truth, Anthony, Paul, and Stanton – Proposed reverse of the $10 bill – provided by feministsforlife.org

Finally, the revamped $5 bill, while retaining Abraham Lincoln on the face, would alter the image of the Lincoln Memorial on the reverse to commemorate historical events which had taken place at that venue, including Eleanor Roosevelt’s intervention to allow Marian Anderson to give her famous concert in 1939, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 “I have a dream” speech.

Negative reaction came swiftly.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump ridiculed the plan to replace Jackson with Tubman, calling it “pure political correctness” and praising the slave-holding Jackson who he had often claimed was a populist hero who reminded him of himself, “Well, Andrew Jackson had a great history, and I think it’s very rough when you take somebody off the bill,” Trump told NBC News. “I think Harriet Tubman is fantastic, but I would love to leave Andrew Jackson or see if we can maybe come up with another denomination”, later clarified as a suggestion that Tubman be demoted to the out-of-print $2 bill. (4)

Following Trump’s election, Steven Mnuchin, the new Secretary of the Treasury began repeatedly dodging questions about whether his department would go ahead with the Tubman $20 bill.  In 2019 he announced that the new design would not be unveiled before 2026, with the notes entering circulation in 2028, a date later pushed back to 2030.

The Bureau of Engraving and Printing’s alleged design for the Tubman Twenty

Further washing his (and Trump’s) hands of the controversy, he also told a Congressional hearting that, “I’m not going to comment on it (the question of whether Tubman should replace Jackson on the $20 bill) because, as I’ve said, it’s not going to be my decision….It’s going to be a Treasury secretary’s decision in the future.”

Mnuchin’s justification was that anti-counterfeiting security measures were more important than whose face appear on the currency.  At this same time the New York Times reported that they had information from unnamed sources in the Treasury Department that the engraved printing plate for the front of the new Tubman $20 may have been completed as early as May 2018 but was being kept under lock and key.

The years continued to pass.  Then, in 2021, a few days after the Biden administration took office, White House press secretary Jan Psaki announced that, “The Treasury Department is taking steps to resume efforts to put Harriet Tubman on the front of the new $20 notes…..It’s important that our money reflect the history and diversity of our country.”

But a year later, it seems that no progress has been made to move forward the changes to the $20, $10 and $5 bills announced almost 6 years ago.

Last month a spokesperson for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing told Spectrum News that there is “no change to the expected 2030 release date.”

“The primary reason currency is redesigned is for security against counterfeiting; the redesign timeline is driven by security feature development…The currency design process is complex and significant testing is required for the notes to be production ready.  Once production is underway, the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, as the issuing authority, will determine the actual issue dates for the redesigned notes.”

So with Tubman’s Twenty, and Susan B. Anthony’s Ten on hold for the foreseeable future, the answer to the question, “what’s not in your wallet?” will remain, as it has for over 125 years, “recognition of the achievements of over 50% of our population”.


This seemingly perpetual on-hold isn’t the first time that Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony have been paired together.  At a meeting of the New York State Woman Suffrage Association in Rochester’s Y.M.C.A Music Hall in 1896, thunderous applause greeted Miss Anthony as she introduced Mrs. Tubman to the audience and led her hand-in-hand to the rostrum where she spoke of her life in slavery, her escape, and her days in the Underground Railroad and as a nurse during the Civil War.

Susan B. Anthony and Harriet Tubman


(1) Actually, the first historical woman to appear on “American” paper money was Lucy Petway Holcomb Pickens (the archetypal southern belle and wife of the governor of South Carolina when that state seceded in 1860), who was depicted on a $1 bill issued by the Confederate States of America in 1862.

(2) Assumedly even more tongue-in-cheek, Green also suggested that, if Rochester seceded, then Henrietta would be sure to follow.  And if that happened, where would the manufacturers of pink lawn flamingos sell their wares?

(3) Rumor had it that the popularity of the musical “Hamilton” was one of the reasons why Alex was left in place on the $10 bill.  Who knows?

(4) In 2017, two months into his presidency, and as a less-than-subtle indication of where his sympathies lay, Trump placed a wreath on Jackson’s grave in Nashville saying, “It was during the Revolution that Jackson first confronted and defied arrogant elite.” Does that sound familiar?


Stamping on Rochester and Susan B.

Harriet Beecher Stowe fits the bill

In Douglass We Trust

About The Author


Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.


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