Viewpoint

Time to install a true hero on $20 bill

Some say Harriet Tubman’s picture should replace Andrew Jackson’s on $20 bills.
Some say Harriet Tubman’s picture should replace Andrew Jackson’s on $20 bills. NATIONAL PARK SERVICE

Let’s discuss putting a picture of a woman on the $20 bill. But, first: How many of you remember Ivy Baker Priest?

OK, nobody. Good thing I’m hard to discourage. But stick with me for a minute, and then we’ll talk about Harriet Tubman versus Andrew Jackson.

In the 1950s, Ivy Baker Priest was the U.S. treasurer. This is not to be confused with secretary of the Treasury, a job of far greater power. We have never had a woman running the Treasury Department, but the last 15 treasurers have been female.

The treasurer does get her signature on all our paper currency, and I remember as a child being very impressed when my mother pointed out Priest’s name on a dollar bill. It was, perhaps, the first time I realized a person of my gender could be in a position of public authority without being the queen of England.

The message here is that what goes on our money has an impact. “It’s a reflection of the values in this country,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire. As part of the current debate about putting a woman on one of the bills, she’s introduced legislation that would require the secretary of the Treasury to convene “a panel of citizens” to discuss the whole portrait issue.

“That’s how it was done in the 1920s when Andrew Jackson was put on the $20,” she said.

Ah, Andrew Jackson. The perfect target. Slave-owner who came to national renown as an Indian-killer. Who, as president, made hatred of the national bank his big issue, while showing a certain fondness for state banks owned by his cronies.

On the positive side, he really loved his wife.

A website called Women on 20s recently conducted a poll to find a woman to replace Jackson.

Harriet Tubman won.

Pretty perfect. Replace the slave-owner with the escaped slave who returned to the South – again and again and again – to lead other slaves to freedom. These days “freedom” is a much-abused word, which gets applied to everything from capital gains tax cuts to office towers. But Harriet Tubman could get freedom back to where it once belonged.

So, we’re all happy, right? Harriet Tubman for Andrew Jackson. Best trade ever.

Not so fast.

Changing American paper currency turns out to be a huge ordeal. The main decision-maker is something called the Advanced Counterfeit Deterrence Steering Committee, with representatives from a whole bunch of government entities, including the Secret Service.

“Whenever a decision is made, it’s not just done. It takes years of research before the process even gets remotely underway,” said Lydia Washington of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

Maybe Ivy Baker Priest understood what a heavy lift change is when she said women didn’t care about having their pictures on money “as long as we get our hands on it.”

“Getting our hands on the money is equally important,” said Shaheen mildly. But, really, we can go for both.

Gail Collins is a New York Times columnist.

  Comments