Harriet Tubman and the $20 Bill: A Woman’s Worth In America

The last time a woman’s portrait was featured on the design of U.S. paper money was between 1891 and 1896, when Martha Washington graced a dollar certificate. Before then, the only other woman featured was Pocahontas, from 1865 to 1869.

This will soon change, however, thanks to a currency redesign that was announced last month by Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew. Harriet Tubman, an African-American abolitionist born into slavery, will take Andrew Jackson’s spot on the front of the $20 bill. In an interview with Washington’s Top News, Riche Richardson, associate professor in the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University, states:

“This gesture sends a powerful message, because of the tendency in American history, the background of excluding women and marginalizing them as national symbols. So even the symbolic significance of this cannot be overstated.”

Andrew Jackson, America’s seventh president, has recently become more infamous for his reputation as a slave owner than a worthy symbol of what our nation stands for today. However, he will still be featured on the back of the bill.

This change was catalyzed by activist groups like Women on 20s, who have been campaigning for iconic women to be honored on what has historically been a male-dominated canvas. They used an online election format that polled the public, and over 600,000 people voted for Harriet Tubman. Women on 20s then presented a petition to President Obama, encouraging him to direct Lew to enact this change.

Harriet Tubman, leader of the Underground Railroad that helped guide slaves to freedom, was also a prominent advocate for women’s rights and member of the suffragist movement after the Civil War.

The historic change will be made in 2020, on the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment, when women won the right to vote.

More Change to Come

Initially, it was the $10 bill that was due for a redesign, and plans included featuring a prominent woman’s portrait in lieu of Alexander Hamilton. After Lew received backlash over Hamilton’s removal, a compromise was reached where Hamilton will remain on the front, and the back of the bill will feature an honorarium to a 1913 march, including suffragette leaders Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Alice Paul. This change will also take place in 2020.

The Art Behind The Politics

With all this focus on redesigning American paper money to better reflect the nation’s values, we grew more curious about how these types of design decisions are made and the artistic process behind the making of money.

Historically, U.S. currency is redesigned mainly in an effort to curtail counterfeiting. Lew’s proposed design changes will be the most substantial overhaul in almost fifty years.

It turns out that the portraits, vignettes, and scripts found on U.S. paper money are designed in a collaborative process that includes the Federal Reserve, The Bureau of Engraving and Printing’s staff of highly skilled designers and engravers, and even the Secret Service — all of whom have different goals. These goals include conveying a dignified image that reflects the strength of the nation, retaining familiar historical characteristics, and implementing anti-counterfeiting elements.

The creative design process itself includes multiple steps that range from creative ideas and rough pen and ink sketches, to meticulous engraving and intaglio printmaking art that leads to hundreds of identical printing plates. Ultimately, the Treasury Secretary approves the final look. Lastly, the sheets are inspected by advanced computer technology systems for mistakes and imperfections and packaged for shipment.

When it comes to more accurately reflecting our nation’s history, which has been built by both men and women, these latest redesigns take a step in the right direction. The nation’s people, however, are calling for more than women simply sharing the spotlight of one bill, or being less-prominently featured on the backs of others, which to Women on 20s, is still “inadequate representation of women and their worth.”

When you do finally get your hands on a Harriet Tubman $20 bill in 2020, be sure to hold onto it; it may be worth more than twenty dollars someday.

Harriet Tubman and the $20 Bill