And, predictably, the announcement by U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew evoked a torrent of hatred from the usual wingnut quarters. Donald Trump, ever pandering to the haters, demeaned the decision as “pure political correctness” rather than simple justice. A conservative media personality who should know better — Greta Van Sustern — called the decision “stupid.” These are some of the nasty comments I can actually write about on this blog. The deeper corners of Internet Hatred Syndrome pulsed with despicable racist venom. What has happened to our country that even something wonderful — honoring a great, heroic historic woman — becomes a cause for so much ugly commentary?
Harriet Tubman would not be afraid or deterred by such an ugly display of some of the worst traits of American culture. She suffered worse, far worse, as a slave. We cannot imagine the courage, fortitude and sheer willpower it took for her to escape slavery and then risk her freedom to help others do the same. She facilitated the Underground Railroad, that extraordinarily dangerous pathway to freedom for thousands of slaves. She worked tirelessly for the cause of abolition, and fearlessly spoke out in favor of women’s suffrage. Her example of courage in the face of grave personal danger, triumph over slavery and racial hatred, and devotion to the fundamental cause of human freedom and justice is something we Americans need to remember as a vital part of our history — and every $20 bill will remind us!
Americans have long been used to images of men on currency and coins — Washington, Lincoln, Hamilton, Jackson, and other “dead presidents” have looked upon our spending habits for generations. Getting equal status for women on coins and currency has been fraught with controversy.
I know something about this because for a brief period of time, in 1998, I was a member of something called the Dollar Coin Design Advisory Committee appointed by then-Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin. Our group of 8 citizen leaders included artists, politicians, public officials, coin experts, and me as the representative not only of higher education but a women’s institution. At that time, near the end of the Clinton Administration, the Susan B. Anthony dollar coin was fading, considered a failure in some quarters (no pun intended) because it resembled a quarter and was not widely used by consumers. The Clinton Administration had a strong bias in favor of keeping a woman on the dollar coin, but wanted to find a way to make the coin more popular.
The U.S. Mint made some choices at that time to try to stimulate public acceptance: they made the coin gold in color, and with a different feel from quarters. But most important, they asked our committee to recommend an image of an important woman in American history.
The process was fascinating, but politically quite fraught. I quickly learned that one of the greatest of all women in American History — Eleanor Roosevelt — had little chance because of the persistent rumors about her personal life. No matter that history had already revealed the infidelity of her husband Franklin whose profile is on the dime. Women must be perfect in all ways to be elevated to the status of national heroes.
After listening to a great many suggestions in public testimony, and discussion among the cognoscenti on the committee, it became clear that an image was already a favorite — Sacagawea, the heroic Shoshone woman whose guidance of Lewis & Clark opened the American West. A good choice, but eminently safe because the story of Sacagawea had been burnished by the length of history. And so, the Sacagawea dollar coin was born, and then quickly faded into obscurity along with Susan B. Anthony.
Part of the problem with both dollar coins — Sacagawea and Susan B. Anthony — is the simple fact that we don’t use dollar coins very much, preferring the lighter weight and feel of paper money. The Treasury even played with the idea of retiring dollar bills, but the paper lobby would not hear of it. It’s always interesting to know what interests are behind promoting or blocking public policy concepts! (See this good analysis: Why the Sacajawea dollar coin was a failure)
The Tubman 20 should have a much better fate — $20 bills are the standard currency these days, they’re what ATM machines deliver with too much frequency, and who doesn’t delight in finding one or two stuck in coat pockets or tumbling around the dryer? A $20 bill has gravity, a value that’s high enough that we really care about it, a frequent companion for groceries, dinner, drinks or cab fare.
Will it make any difference in America’s tortured culture wars about race and gender to have Tubman on the currency? I like to think that the more we mainstream our history, the more likely it is that future generations will be less contentious about these issues and more accepting of race, class, gender, language, religion, and other differences as normal and not anomalous. Making our daily encounters of historic figures on currency may seem like a small step, but every symbol is important, and every image helps to create a “new normal” for the nation. Our diversity is normal, and embracing diversity is a matter of justice.
Hooray for Harriet! We should celebrate this small but mighty step forward in the long arc of seeking justice for all people in this nation.
Note: I’m very excited about the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitors Center that is under construction on the edge of the fabulous Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Dorchester County, Maryland, near Cambridge. The co-location of the Tubman historic site with this great environmental location also provides rich opportunities for research, teaching and learning in many disciplines. I do a lot of wildlife photography at Blackwater and through exploring that area I’ve also come to understand how remote and treacherous the work of the Underground Railroad really was. I urge members of the Trinity community to add these sites to your own explorations — perhaps take a detour on your way to the beach in the summer, or a long weekend drive to the Eastern Shore where you can consume history, environmental science and some excellent blue crabs!