There’s not a female face on our paper currency, which the U.S. Treasury is now promising to change. There is also no one on our money who’s distinguished because of service in Congress. The Obama administration has viable options for rectifying both shortcomings simultaneously with its choice for new portraiture on the $10 bill.
A strong case can be made that the visage for our monetary future should be Jeannette Rankin, the first congresswoman. Or Margaret Chase Smith, the first female to serve in congressional leadership. Or Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman in Congress. Or Barbara Jordan , a singular voice of congressional conscience during the constitutional crisis of Watergate.
The re-imagined note won’t be unveiled until 2020, the centennial of the ratification of 19th Amendment, which gave women nationwide the same voting rights as men. Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew, who’s got the authority to change the design, plans to make his decision by the end of the year.
“America’s currency makes a statement about who we are and what we stand for as a nation,” Lew said, adding he is looking for a woman “who was a champion for our inclusive democracy.”
Treasury is launching a public campaign to solicit suggestions via #TheNew10 through social media and a series of town hall meetings. The only legal requirement is that the chosen lady must have been dead for at least two years, so the women currently in congressional positions of prominence aren’t eligible.
The public will probably rally behind many of the same women who proved most popular in a recent online poll conducted by “Women on 20s,” a grass-roots group created to petition the White House to get Andrew Jackson off the $20 bill. (Lew chose instead to replace, or at least shrink, the image of the first Treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, because the $10 was in line for a once-a- decade facelift to deter counterfeiting.) More than 600,000 participated in the voting and, in the end, abolitionist Harriet Tubman finished as the top choice ahead of iconic first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, segregation combatant Rosa Parks and Cherokee Nation Chief Wilma Mankiller.
The group’s initial field of 30 included these four trailblazing members of Congress. Now that Lew has shifted the search to a woman who embodies inclusive democracy, any of them would be a worthy choice, as their stories capture that concept memorably. Choosing a former lawmaker would also be a reminder that the Capitol has seen more diversity than the White House, and has been at least as regular an engine for advancing democratic ideals.
And besides, the only remotely congressional face on the denominations still in production belongs to Abraham Lincoln, who spent all of one term as a House member from Illinois. (William McKinley was for 12 years a House Republican from Ohio and chaired the Ways and Means Committee in his final term, but he’s on the little-circulated $500 note mainly because he was a relatively recently assassinated president when portraits were chosen in the 1920s.)
There are 2 billion $10 bills in Americans’ wallets at any one time, and each stays in circulation for about a decade. Here’s the short version of why each of the four deserves to have her face printed on our cash.
Rankin won Montana’s at-large House seat in 1916. Four years before universal suffrage, 17 years before the first female spoke on the Senate floor or took a seat in the Cabinet, and 65 years before the first woman on the Supreme Court, Rankin’s was the first female voice formally authorized to become part of the federal policymaking debate when she came to Congress.
That made her the only woman eligible to vote in Congress to approve the 19th Amendment, and during her first term she also cast 1 of the 50 votes against entering World War I. Her pacifism was a major factor in her loss of the Republican primary when she ran for the Senate in 1918. But she returned to the House in 1940 — only to retire two years later, at age 62, her prospects for re-election eliminated by her solitary “no” vote in the House on the December 1941 resolution declaring war against Japan. “As a woman I can’t go to war,” she said, “and I refuse to send anyone else.”
Smith was the first woman to serve on both sides of the Capitol, four terms as a liberal House Republican from Maine followed by four terms as a senator. She was the first woman elected to the Senate without first serving as an appointee, and her 24-year tenure exceeded the combined service of the first dozen other female senators. Her 1950 “declaration of conscience,” in which she derided McCarthyism’s “exploitation of fear, bigotry, ignorance and intolerance,” remains among the most famous Senate floor speeches.
She was elected chairwoman of the GOP Conference in 1967 and held the No. 3 leadership job until her defeat in 1972, at age 74. She also served six years as ranking member of both the Armed Services and Aeronautical and Space Sciences committees and rose to be the third-most-senior Republican on Appropriations. After running in four presidential primaries in 1964, she was the first woman whose name was placed in nomination at a major party convention. She was on the short list for vice president in 1952 and 1968.
Chisholm was not only the first black woman to serve in Congress, but also the first female African-American to run for president. With “Unbought and Unbossed” as her campaign slogan, she defeated an establishment Democrat in the 1968 primary to secure victory in a majority-minority Brooklyn district, then refused her assignment to the Agriculture Committee, saying it was irrelevant to her constituents. She eventually won seats on both Rules and Education and Labor, where she promoted minimum-wage increases, federal day care subsidies and government help for poor college students. She retired after seven terms, at age 58.
She was a founder of the Congressional Black Caucus but was distant from the male-dominated African-American power structure of the day. “I’m the only one among you who has the balls to run for president,” she told the black caucus assembled for the 1972 Democratic convention, where she secured 151 pledged delegates despite not winning any primaries.
Jordan, the first black member from Texas, spent only spent six years in the House, departing voluntarily after her third term ended in 1978, when she was just 42. But the rhetorical gifts she displayed during her brief career — on the Judiciary Committee in 1974 and as the first woman and the first African-American keynote speaker at a Democratic convention, in 1976 — have left a lasting mark on the body politic.
After winning her seat with 80 percent, she lobbied for her Judiciary post on the grounds that her broad mandate meant her agenda needed to stretch beyond issues identified with her gender and race. “Through the process of amendment, interpretation and court decision I have finally been included in ‘We, the people’” she said in announcing her vote to impeach President Richard M. Nixon. As a result, she said, “My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total, and I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.”
Senior Editor David Hawkings writes the Hawkings Here blog for rollcall.com.
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