This article responds to claims by the United States Treasurer, Rosie Rios, that she was the first person to explore the idea of putting a woman on paper currency. As the article explains, the American population, and Congress, have been exploring the idea for some time.
By Ruth Anne Robbins and Genevieve Tung
As 2016 begins, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has yet to name the American woman that he, and he alone, will select to share the $10 with Alexander Hamilton. This is a trifling delay when we consider that citizens have been requesting a woman on our paper currency for decades. Our system for issuing paper currency, created by the 1862 wartime Congress, gives nearly unfettered discretion to one unelected cabinet member. This undemocratic process allows Treasury to create powerful global symbols of the United States without accountability or systematized process for public opinion.
Secretary Lew announced #theNew10 on June 17th, less than a month after a massive online vote organized by the grassroots organization Women on 20s selected Harriet Tubman to be the new face of the $20 bill. That group, which collected the votes of over 600,000 people, used a more transparent and democratic process than hashtags and has the better pulse of the country. Since his announcement Secretary Lew and Treasurer Rosie Rios—the other high-ranking member of Treasury working on the project—have encountered well-publicized criticism from the press and on social media for tone-deafness. In addition to featuring the popular Alexander Hamilton, there are fewer $10 bills in circulation than other small bills—for example, it has only ¼ the circulation of the $20—so the choice for a woman to share a lesser-utilized denomination rings hollow.
In answer to many questions, the Treasury website inaccurately states that its records do not indicate why certain presidents were selected for particular denominations. In fact, internal reports from the last major currency re-design do explain the rationale.
Treasurer Rios has also made statements to MSNBC and as part of a talk she gave at Barnard, that she originated the idea of a woman on paper currency. According to Rios, she asked the Director of the Treasury’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing why there had never been a woman on a bill, and was told that the issue had never been raised before. This is not true, and Rios should have known better. The Treasury Department received documented suggestions to honor women beginning at least 95 years ago, in letters and telegrams, media inquiries, and legislative proposals.
In 1921, a Mr. William T. Evans of the Dime Savings Bank in Ohio wrote to President Harding, suggesting the substitution of Martha Washington on the $1 where the Treasury Department Seal then appeared. Eloquently, he penned “It seems to me that it would meet the approval of the patriotic people of the United States of America and be doing an honor where a patriotic honor belongs.” Mr. Evans enclosed a $1 bill and signed off “ever faithful in the love of the U.S.A.” An Assistant Secretary of the Treasury wrote back to politely brush him off: “Your interest in the designs of United States currency is appreciated and your suggestion will have due consideration. The bill you enclose is returned herewith. By direction of the Secretary.”
Later letters sent by citizens in the 1940s and 1950s received polite but brusque responses from Treasury that demonstrated the same indifference, and without equivocation. One 1948 telegram sent directly to Treasury Secretary John Snyder reads “I believe that the present policy of utilizing only portraits of men on paper currency is unfair and discriminating to American women. There are a sufficient number of women who have made a mark on America that they could qualify to be portrayed on one or more of the denominations of American currency.” An assistant secretary dismissed the idea, “In firmly fixing the portraits to be used in 1929 . . . [when all bank notes were made uniform], it was determined to make as few changes as possible. Only portraits theretofore used were retained and these were selected with the purpose of having them fairly representative of Americans who had performed distinguished service in the various periods of the country’s history.”
These responses cited no law, because there was none. Treasury’s statements appear to derive from its own press releases. Coins have no fixed designs and are regularly modified. And the Treasury Department has tweaked the paper currency for the smallest of details including the look of the windows on the White House or the shape of shrubbery in front of buildings. The $5 bill has undergone a major modernizing redesign.
Treasurer Rios’s claim also neglects to credit the work of her predecessors in shaping a legislative fix. In 1971, New York Congressman Seymour Halpern consulted with U.S. Treasurer Dorothy Andrews Elston before introducing legislation to issue $2 bills bearing the portrait of Susan B. Anthony. The bill had bipartisan co-sponsorship in both houses, and the support of twenty-one governors across the country.
To be fair, Rios is committed, and Lew is the first Treasury Secretary to publicly support the idea of women on paper currency. He has taken a positive step that no Secretary before him would take. But Rios’s skewed narrative and Lew’s vast discretion highlight some problems with the 1862 process itself. Our paper currency is our country’s most widely circulated symbol, speaking to who we are as a people. The question of portraiture is more than paper-deep and belongs to more than one person.
Organizations like Women on 20s must continue to shine a light on what other citizens have recognized for almost a century as an autocratic practice.
About the contributors
Ruth Anne Robbins and Genevieve Tung are law professors at Rutgers Law School with a combined expertise in legal document design and legal research. Ruth Anne Robbins has published articles about legal writing, legal narrative, and the visuals of legal documents. Genevieve Tung is also a law librarian with experience in federal agency and legislative research. They are working on a full-length law review article on the larger questions of the Treasury Department’s policies and procedures.