By Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker for Coinweek ….
For most numismatists, the whole thing came as a surprise. The Women On 20s movement, a non-profit grassroots campaign to place a notable American woman on the $20 bill, dared to use social media and the internet to bring about change to the design of our nation’s currency.
But not just any currency. The $20 bill is one of the most circulated modern Federal Reserve Notes, retaining its relative purchasing power while smaller bills have become arguably less useful to daily life.
To go after the $20 was a bold move, indeed. And it worked!
It would take a long time before the notes saw release (there is a lengthy process that has to be followed), but the Obama Administration did announce plans to put a woman on the $20 note.
But that was almost two years ago. Now these plans appear to be in limbo, as the new administration has brought an entirely different set of priorities to Washington. And with both the numismatic and mainstream media expressing interest in the matter in recent months, we decided to find out what the fate of the Series 2020 Harriet Tubman $20 Federal Reserve Note might be.
Women on 20s
It all started on May 12, 2015.
On that day, Women On 20s announced the winner of their online poll to choose a historical American woman to appear on the $20 bill. After two-and-a-half months of a very prominent news and social media campaign, anti-slavery activist Harriet Tubman had bested former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt for the top spot in the final round of voting.
At the same time, the organization also submitted petitions and videos to the White House, asking President Barack Obama and Secretary of the Treasury Jacob “Jack” Lew to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20. It also started the #DearMrPresident hastag on Twitter.
And the White House listened.
However, in 2013, the Advanced Counterfeit Deterrence (ACD) Committee had looked at all currently circulating United States paper money and determined that the $10 note should be redesigned first. Since these changes were already in the pipeline at the Treasury, and since any changes to the $20 then would necessarily take place after the 2020 anniversary, Secretary Lew decided to place Tubman’s portrait on the front of the $10 bill. Nevertheless, she would have to share the honor; Founding Father Alexander Hamilton was to remain on the bill.
This was the plan as announced in a YouTube video on June 17, 2015. It wasn’t quite what Women on 20s were after, and so they persisted in their campaign.
Then came the Broadway musical hit Hamilton and a White House visit to the Secretary by Hamilton writer, composer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda. In what must surely be a rare occurrence in American monetary history, there were now two strong, enthusiastic pop-cultural arguments for and against changing the $10 note.
Lew reversed course. In a statement he delivered on April 20, 2016, the Treasury Secretary announced that Harriet Tubman would indeed replace President Jackson on the $20 bill. Unfortunately, the fact that the $10 was next in line for a redesign had not changed, and so the $20 would not enter circulation until 2030 at the earliest – 10 years after the anniversary of the 19th Amendment.
As for Hamilton and the $10, he would once again be the sole star of the front, but women and the fight for civil rights in this country would be honored with a new design on the back. The $5 bill would also receive a similar treatment. Final designs for the new series of notes would be released in 2020.
The timing of the note’s release may not have been what the movement wanted, but many people were confident that women would be returning to our nation’s currency after 120 years, and that our money would feature the image of a prominent African-American for the first time in history.
This is where things stood before Election Day.
A Trump Administration Timeline
After Donald J. Trump was elected president on November 8, 2016, the numismatic media had reason to wonder whether or not the new administration would reverse the Obama-era decision to include women on the upcoming Federal Reserve Note redesign.
Before the election, Trump heaped praised on both Tubman and Jackson at an NBC Today Show town hall on April 21, 2016–the day after Lew’s announcement–but called the Secretary’s plan “pure political correctness”. Trump also echoed a suggestion offered by then-presidential candidate Ben Carson (now the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development) to place Tubman on the $2 bill instead.
On January 24, 2017, President Trump had a painting of Jackson hung in a prominent position on the wall next to Trump’s desk in the Oval Office.
And then, on March 15, the president placed a wreath on Jackson’s grave at the Hermitage, Jackson’s former plantation near Nashville, Tennessee.
But the closest that a member of the administration has come to confirming that Tubman’s placement on the $20 is a no-go was a statement by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who assumed that office on February 13, 2017. Mnuchin said in an August 31, 2017 interview with cable news network CNBC that the redesign was “not something [the Treasury Department] was focused on at the moment.” The secretary emphasized the priority of anti-counterfeiting measures over aesthetic or political reasons for change.
“Right now, we’ve got a lot of important issues to focus on,” Mnuchin said. However, he did acknowledge that the individuals currently on our paper money have been there “for a long period of time”, implying that stagnant design was a legitimate motivation for a new series of notes.
Now, a little over eight months after the Mnuchin interview, the Tubman on the $20 “controversy” has re-entered public consciouness. With media reports suggesting that the Treasury has reversed the department’s previous plans, Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire wrote an open letter to Secretary Mnuchin requesting information on the status of the redesign.
The text below is Shaheen’s letter in full:
Dear Secretary Mnuchin,
I was disappointed to see recent reports that the Department of the Treasury will be delayed in its efforts to re-design the $20 bill. As you know the Department announced its intention to feature Harriet Tubman on the front of this note and stated its goal for unveiling the new designs by 2020, in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment to the Constitution, which granted women the right to vote. I write to request that you provide detailed information regarding the timeline and efforts at the Department of the Treasury to honor women who have contributed to our nation’s history by meeting this important milestone.
The Department of the Treasury announced this decision in response to a grassroots campaign that engaged hundreds of thousands of Americans behind a common mission: placing the likeness of a woman who has contributed to our nation’s history on our paper currency. After more than a half million votes online, the campaign suggested that the $20 bill feature Harriet Tubman, a trailblazing role model whose life of fighting for freedom and her country can inspire young girls across the country. The Department of the Treasury’s outreach confirmed this grassroots interest.
This recognition is long overdue. Women have been a critical part of our nation’s history and values, and the lack of a woman on our American currency is glaring oversight. We handle paper currency every day, and the symbols on these bills represent American values and explain part of our identity as a nation. Unfortunately, the symbols on our paper currency have been reserved exclusively for men who have shaped our history. That’s why the time has come to honor the contributions that women have made to our society, and reaffirm that women will be an important part of our future.
To ensure that we meet this objective, the Department of the Treasury announced plans to accelerate work to re-design the $20 bill. This work includes efforts to ensure that our currency stays on the cutting edge and ahead of counterfeiters. However, recent reports have called into question whether the Department is working to meet this important milestone. To ensure transparency for Congress and the public, I reuqest that you provide responses to the following questions:
1. Does the Department of the treasury plan to meet its stated objective of unveiling a new design for the $20 bill to feature the likeness of Harriet Tubman by 2020, the anniversary of the 19th amendment? If not, please explain why the Department will fail to meet this goal.
2. As part of the announcement of changes to the $20 bill, the Department also indicated that the updated $5 and $10 bills would feature heroes of the women’s suffrage and civil rights movements. Will the Department continue with its plans to change other notes, including the $5 and $10 bill, to tell the story of these movements?
3. What steps has the Bureau of Engraving and Printing done to accelerate work on the new $20 note?
4. What information is available to the general public about the important historical figures and events that the Department plans to honor on the currency?
Thank you for your attention to this matter. if you have any questions, please contact Chris Neary on Senator Shaheen’s staff at firstname.lastname@example.org or (202) 224-3052.
I look forward to your prompt response.
United States Senator
Senator Shaheen was not alone in her efforts. In September of last year, U.S. Representative John Katko (R-NY24) introduced legislation (H.R. 3714, the Harriet Tubman Tribute Act of 2017) that would legally require the Treasury Department to place Tubman on the $20. Currently, the bill has only nine co-sponsors – all Democrats. Katko had introduced the original version of the Act back in June of 2015.
A Word From the BEP
Because we were curious about the answers to Senator Shaheen’s questions ourselves, CoinWeek decided to contact the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP), the agency responsible for the printing and design of our nation’s paper currency. We asked them what their current plans are concerning the proposed changes.
Lydia Washington, Lead Public Affairs Specialist for the BEP, replied in an email that the “next redesign is still in its early stages and neither the final designs or all features have been finalized for the new notes” and that the “timeline is driven by security feature development” as opposed to aesthetics. She also reminded us that any final decision is up to the Treasury Secretary to make.
According to Washington, the Treasury Department’s Advanced Counterfeit Deterrence (ACD) Steering Committee decreed in 2013 that the next bill to be updated would be the $10 note. Barring unforseen threats to the integrity of the nation’s money supply, a tentative release date of 2026 was given, with changes to the $50, $20, $5, and $100 bills to follow. A finalized release date can come only from the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve, and only after the new currency has underwent a “lengthy and complex” testing process.
We also asked if any artwork, conceptual or otherwise, had been produced, and from what sources or inspiration such artwork or concepts might come.
“In general, as part of the design process, for any image being created for use on currency, our Banknote Designers and Engravers look at available historical records, photographs, artwork, and may even perform pertinent site visits as part of their research in developing preliminary design concepts,” she said.
Washington did not, however, confirm or deny that any preliminary artwork had been produced, stating only that no “final” artwork had been created.
Having spoken with a representative of the Bureau, we decided to check out the Treasury’s website and YouTube Channel for more information. What we found was that all previous links and video regarding Secretary Lew’s decision had been scrubbed from both sites. A website devoted to information about the upcoming redesign—modernmoney.treasury.gov–and the new $10 bill itself–thenew10.treasury.gov–now redirected to moneyfactory.gov – the website of the BEP.
And the YouTube channel, once host to a number of videos, now featured only one: a video from Secretary Mnuchin dated April 25, 2018, urging taxpayers to check their tax withholdings.
So is this the end of the story? Even if the Trump administration has reversed all previous plans, there are those in Washington and among the general public who will continue to push for Tubman’s placement on the banknote. To quote Women on 20s Executive Director Susan Ades Stone from the organization’s announcement three years ago:
“Our paper bills are like pocket monuments to great figures in our history. Our work won’t be done until we’re holding a Harriet $20 bill in our hands in time for the centennial of women’s suffrage in 2020.”
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