Think we’ve achieved gender equality in America?
Take a look at the change rattling around in your pocket. Or folded up in your wallet.
If you lived in Syria, Argentina or Turkey, there’s a good chance a woman would be on at least one of the bills you pulled out to pay for your morning coffee.
But in the good, old apple-pie-and-mom U.S.A.? White male, white male, white male. That’s about all you see on our money. As if no one else ever mattered in our nation’s history — no other face, race or gender was important enough to honor on our nation’s legal tender.
Okay, there were the Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea dollar coins. Funny how women got to be only on the coins that no one wanted to use. Gee, thanks guys. Next up? Phone booths named after our founding mothers!
This week, a group campaigning for a more relevant representation of women on our cash, Women on 20s, announced the results of their final vote, in which about 600,000 people cast ballots for the woman who should replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill.
Edging out Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks and Wilma Mankiller, the first woman elected principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, was Harriet Tubman, who was born into slavery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
With that suggestion, a public campaign and an endorsement from President Obama, all it takes for Tubman to replace Jackson is a simple declaration by the Treasury Department. More men.
Will they listen?
Getting Tubman on the $20 bill, rather than the $10 or the $100 notes, is pretty heavy on the symbolism.
Tubman, the fearless leader of the Underground Railroad who was also a Union spy, cook and nurse during the Civil War, fought Congress long and hard for a proper pension. She was originally granted $8 a month, a widow’s pension, after the death of her second husband, Nelson Davis.
An insult. Even some Washington insiders, including Rep. Sereno Payne of New York back in 1898 — lobbied on her behalf, arguing that her own, valuable service should be enough to earn her the standard $25 a month war veteran pension.
The best Congress could do — after arguing about it for a year, of course — was to knock it down to $20 a month, which she received until her death in 1913.
So is it cruel irony or justice to have the extraordinary woman on the $20 bill?
It probably won’t matter for too much longer, because cash is going the way of the fax machine anyhow. But it’s something, a start.
Because when people see that new $20 bill and wonder why we’re changing our money, maybe they’ll also wonder why we never had women on our money in the first place, like they do in Syria, Turkey, Argentina, the Philippines, Mexico and, of course, England.
Is it because we simply don’t have female pioneers, female role models, female leaders? Of course we do — but are we comfortable with them?
Ask the folks in Austin, who held a special, two-hour training session for staff this week on how to deal with these exotic creatures — women (remember, the nation’s majority?) — after the city elected its first female-majority city council.
So no wonder we can’t get our heads around women on currency, because we can’t seem to get our heads around women as lawmakers. Since the mid-20th century, women have led Germany, New Zealand, Switzerland, Iceland, Bolivia, Malta, Ireland, Liberia — should I go on?
Indonesia, Panama, Latvia, Finland, India and — you get my point.
But in many of the countries that do feature women on their currency, the nations go beyond honoring presidents and include artists, writers or humanitarians.
Hmm. Maybe we just have a hard time valuing the work that women do.
If a woman’s face were on the $20 bill, maybe Americans would be encouraged to wonder why for the same work, a man might receive all $20 and a woman only $16.80. It’s a chasm that is more persistent in America than some tiny, impoverished African countries, where men and women’s earnings, though meager, are closer to being equal for equal work.
As Americans, we still puff our chests out with superiority for our innovation, might, spirit and bravery. But it’s getting hard to ignore the fact that we still lag when it comes to equality.
Why? The answer is in money. Or on the money.
What’s missing? Women. Women in leadership, women’s value in the workforce, women’s fair compensation.
How appropriate that Tubman can be the one who starts that change, once again leading others out of the shadows.