The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why a U.S. senator is trying to put a woman’s face on the $20 bill

Rosa Parks. (Courtesy of Women on 20s)
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A months-long push to change the portrait on the $20 from Andrew Jackson to that of an important woman from American history became a bill in the Senate this week. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who introduced the measure, told The Washington Post that she believes the change, if implemented, would help to "remind people how much we have benefited from so many men and women" throughout American history.

Shaheen's bill is inspired by a separate campaign — known as the Women on 20s project — that asked supporters to vote for the woman they believe should replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill. Right now, the campaign is asking supporters to choose between four "finalists:" Eleanor Roosevelt, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and Wilma Mankiller, the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation. The campaign, which has collected more than 200,000 votes in total for the four finalists, plans to take the results to the White House.

[This group wants to banish Andrew Jackson from the $20 bill]

In the end, however, the Treasury Department alone has the responsibility of determining which portraits appear on our money, which is where Shaheen's proposal comes in. Her bill would task the Treasury with convening a panel of citizens to discuss the issue and share the findings with the secretary of the Treasury. "That's the way it was done back in the 1920s," Shaheen said Thursday, referring to the committee of citizens responsible for the most recent changes to the portraits that appear on American paper money. 

The idea of getting a woman's portrait onto the $20 bill seems to have the support of President Obama, who said in July that it was a "pretty good idea" to put a woman's face on American currency. On Thursday, the idea gained support from at least one Republican member of the House, Rep. Patrick Meehan of Pennsylvania.

"For more than a century, our paper currency has failed to showcase any of the women that have played so vital a role in making America the nation it is today," Meehan said in a statement. He added that he was "urging the Secretary of the Treasury to commission a panel to study this issue and select a woman worthy of the tribute of a portrait on our money."

Shaheen herself doesn't have a preference for whom she'd like to see honored on the $20 bill, but she noted that it's hardly for a lack of choices. "I think there are, going back to the revolution, lots of women whose contributions have been significant and have not gotten the same kind of attention," she said.

The candidates supported by the Women on 20s campaign make for a "good list" of choices, the senator said, but that list is "not in any way exhaustive."

Besides, Shaheen noted, the $20 is overdue for a change: When her office spoke to the Treasury Department about the potential cost of changing the portrait on the bill, staffers learned that the Treasury changes the look of all of its paper money every seven to 10 years — and that the $20 bill, in particular, is "overdue for that redesign."

[Why is Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill? The answer may be lost to history.]

Her office concluded that there's "not a lot of cost involved" in changing the portrait on the $20.

Despite small modifications implemented for security reasons, the Treasury hasn't changed the portraits on the country's paper money since the late 1920s, when, among other changes, Andrew Jackson replaced Grover Cleveland on the $20 bill.

Shaheen's bill will now go before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs. Shaheen said she hasn't yet discussed the measure with the committee's chair, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.). Her office is just beginning to discuss the measure with more of her Senate colleagues, Shaheen added.

Noting that she also serves on the Armed Services, Appropriations and Foreign Relations committees, Shaheen said Congress has a responsibility "not only to deal with life and death issues but to also deal with the ways in which we value" the achievements of Americans.

"This county was built not just on the accomplishments of our leaders like Andrew Jackson, Ben Franklin and Ulysses S. Grant," she said, "but also on the accomplishments of people like Eleanor Roosevelt, Frances Perkins" and many other women.

If Shaheen has her way, one of those women might end up with her portrait on the $20.