The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The $10 bill will soon feature a woman. But the debate is only beginning.

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Here are some of the women people wanted on the $10 bill

This an undated photo shows Rosa Parks riding on the Montgomery Area Transit System bus. Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus on Dec. 1, 1955, and ignited the boycott that led to a federal court ruling against segregation in public transportation. In 1955, Montgomery's racially segregated buses carried 30,000 to 40,000 blacks each day. (AP Photo/Daily Advertiser) (AP)

Wanted: One woman, deeply representative of American democracy. Her image will appear on millions of U.S. currency notes beginning in 2020. U.S. law mandates that she must also rank among the dead.

Late Wednesday, the Treasury Department announced that a long-planned redesign of the $10 bill will feature a number of security upgrades designed to complicate the work of counterfeiters. Oh, and it will also include another little change too: The image of a still-to-be named American woman, something that has not been featured on U.S. paper currency since the 19th century. (Right now, Sacagawea appears on the dollar coin.)

When it comes to the new $10 bill, the Treasury Department envisions a shiny happy discussion, online and off, in which millions of Americans will nominate the woman they believe belongs on the $10. But with only some of the criteria difficult to debate – she must be American and no longer alive – and the remainder about as subjective as they come – a figure representative of democracy and our nation’s values – get ready for all manner of ideological debates and rivalries to begin.

Officially, the woman who will be featured on the nation’s new $10 bill will be selected later this year after Americans get their chance to weigh in on which woman and images best represent the spirit of American democracy at town hall meetings, online via a special Treasury Department Web site and using the hashtag #thenew10 on social media.

Yes, that does mean Twitter.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew told reporters Wednesday night that he will likely discuss options suggested by the public with President Obama (who just may hear a few words on the new $10 from a certain woman named Michelle). But Lew will ultimately make the final decision. The content of most U.S. currency lies within the purview of the treasury secretary. The $1 bill is the only exception.

The new $10 bill is expected to enter circulation in 2020, which happens to be the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave American women the right to vote. Lew told reporters Wednesday that the five-year lag will be needed to develop and print a difficult-to-counterfeit bill.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced that a woman will be featured on a new $10 bill rolling out in 2020. Here are four likely candidates. (Video: Nicki DeMarco/The Washington Post)

And the new $10 bill will feature a woman but in some way continue to honor Alexander Hamilton, a man who played a key role in developing the American monetary system and the roots of its stability, Lew noted to reporters. Hamilton, believed to have been the primary author of The Federalist Papers urging states to ratify the Constitution, was a man who frequently engaged in pitched battles with his political enemies and was ultimately killed in a duel. Among the options discussed with reporters late Wednesday were a $10 bill that features Hamilton on one side and a woman on the other or more than one version of the $10 bill with Hamilton featured on some bills and a woman featured on others.

The seemingly sudden announcement out of the Treasury Department late Wednesday is, according to Lew, part of a long-planned redesign that predates his time at the department. The $10 bill was selected for a redesign because it currently includes fewer security features than other bills and is used often enough that the average bill remains in circulation for about a decade.

Earlier this year, a group that calls itself W20, short for Women on 20s, coordinated an online campaign to replace President Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill with an American woman had deeply influenced or attempted to improve the country. Lew described that contest as nothing more than a happy coincidence, highlighting just how Americans can share, advocate for and spread ideas. After a long campaign the group urged replacing Jackson with Harriet Tubman.

The finalists in the $20 contest were Tubman, along with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, civil rights activist Rosa Parks and contemporary female Native American chief Wilma Mankiller. She died in 2010. That list is pretty diverse and does seem like a natural place to start the debate about candidates for the new $10 bill. Some might add women like Betsy Ross, Susan B. Anthony, Ida B. Wells and Margaret Sanger.

Some of the organizers behind the informal campaign to alter the $20 bill argued that Jackson should be replaced, in part, because of his role in forcing Native Americans off their lands and the subsequent deaths of an untold number. And, W20 officals said, a woman deserved a place on U.S. currency, one of the spaces we use to honor great Americans. Also in April, a measure aiming to put a woman on the $20 bill got an introduction in the Senate -- even as it was the duty of Treasury to make the decision.

And speaking of Jackson, the last women to appear on official U.S. paper currency might today be the subject of some controversy themselves.

Martha Washington, the nation’s first first lady and an owner of slaves, appeared on the U.S. dollar silver certificate, printed between 1891 and 1896. And between 1865 and 1869, Pocahontas was included in a group portrait featured on the Union’s $20 bill. However, many historians argue that the version of Pocahontas’s life with which many Americans are most familiar has been so deeply sanitized that it is, in and of itself, an insult.

There are no plans to redesign other bills, at this time.