(Illustration by Rachel Orr)

Update: Shortly after the publication of this post, the Treasury confirmed that it will place Harriet Tubman’s portrait on the front of the $20, and keep Hamilton on the $10. You can read more about that here

Original post: The viral campaign to put a woman’s portrait on the $20 bill caught on last year in part because of its simplicity: putting a woman on the $20, in 2020, to celebrate the centennial of women’s suffrage.

It wasn’t an original idea, but this online campaign seemed to come at exactly the right time, and in the right way. In early 2015, organizers nominated 15 women and asked supporters to vote for their choice. They hoped for 100,000 votes; they received more than 600,000, eventually choosing Harriet Tubman. So when the Treasury announced in June that it would indeed be putting a woman’s portrait on a paper bill, it seemed to many like a victory for viral activism. In a field of endless online campaigns and petitions that go viral and then go nowhere, Women on 20s was actually getting something accomplished.

"Women on 20s," a campaign started earlier this year that has since inspired bills in the House and the Senate, is trying to replace Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman on $20 bills. (WomenOn20s.org)

But it was a bit more complicated than that: Treasury Secretary Jack Lew never actually said that a woman’s portrait would appear alone on the front of a paper bill, entirely replacing one of the men currently honored on paper money. And instead of the $20, the Treasury said it would first focus on honoring an American woman on the $10, the bill that currently displays a portrait of Alexander Hamilton — you know, the guy with the wildly popular musical.

The Treasury Department, apparently taking a cue from the viral Women on 20s campaign, also announced that it would solicit feedback from Americans over the course of the summer in person and online, and would reveal its plan for the new $10 by the end of 2015. The new design would take effect in 2020, when the $10 was already slated for a change.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew is asking for the public's input on the new $10 bill, which will feature a woman. But Post columnist Alexandra Petri says he's got it all wrong, starting with the removal of founding father Alexander Hamilton. (Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

The coming redesign of the $10 was already in the works, the Treasury explained, and the timing of an independent viral campaign was just a coincidence that helped build excitement for a new series of bill designs. Each bill is regularly redesigned to prevent counterfeiting, and Hamilton’s bill was next in line for a new look, not Jackson’s.

“When we went out with our campaign, we knew what we wanted. We had one singular message,” Barbara Ortiz Howard, the founder of the Women on 20s campaign, said in an interview this week. “They put out something that was a little less clear.”

Just as the timing and rollout of the Women on 20s campaign were exactly right, it seems that Treasury’s attempts to replicate its viral enthusiasm were exactly wrong. The public didn’t want to see Hamilton demoted, especially those caught up in the exploding fandom of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical about the nation’s first Treasury secretary. Online attention shifted from putting a woman on money to saving a the man who was already there.

Treasury listened, delaying its expected announcement of the $10 bill’s redesign until sometime in 2016. And now it appears that Lew is ready to announce the department’s backup plan.

Although a Treasury spokesperson would confirm to The Washington Post only that an announcement from Lew on the matter was coming “soon,” CNN, citing an unnamed government source, reported that Lew will tell the public this week that a woman’s portrait won’t grace the front of the $10 bill after all. Instead, a mural honoring the women’s suffrage movement will be relegated to the back of the $10, the report says.

“When we started this conversation not quite a year ago, it wasn’t clear to me that millions of Americans were going to weigh in with their ideas,” Lew recently told CNBC, in remarks that hinted at the department’s new plan. “We’re not just talking about one bill. We’re talking about the $5, the $10 and the $20. We’re not just talking about one picture on one bill. We’re talking about using the front and the back of the bill to tell an exciting set of stories.”

CNN’s reporting indicates that it will be more than a decade before a portrait of a woman is on the front of a bill. According to its source, a woman will replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 after all, but the new bills won’t be in circulation until 2030 at the earliest. CNN also reported that the next Treasury secretary could scrap those plans.

(Update: A Treasury spokesperson, after confirming several details of the Treasury’s plans on Wednesday, told The Post that speculation over the 2030 date was “baseless,” and that it’s too early to say right now when the new $20 will be in circulation).

Although the Treasury plan described by CNN was not official, the organizers of Women on 20s are dissatisfied by what it implied. Howard was dismayed that the plan appears to push women to the back, at least in part because of the popularity of a Broadway musical.

“It’s a great play! I’ve seen it, it’s wonderful,” Howard said of Miranda’s “Hamilton.” “But because of that, women will have to be relegated to the back [of the $10]. That sends, perhaps, a more degrading message.” The group will continue to ask Treasury to “honor its original commitment” to include a woman’s portrait on the front of the $10,  Howard said. If Treasury wants to redesign the $20, too, with a woman’s portrait front and center, that would be even better.

“If recent reports are true that the $20 bill is back on the table, then the Women on 20s campaign deserves a lot of credit,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who introduced legislation last year supporting the goals of the viral campaign, said in an email statement. “They’ve done an incredible job of rallying voices across this country, and I hope that Treasury puts forward a proposal that appropriately honors the contributions that women have made to this country.”

“I do share their concern that a new bill could take far too long to release,” she added. “Women have waited long enough to be honored with a portrait and I hope Treasury is considering options to expedite the process. We should be discussing years, not decades.”

In anticipation of Lew’s announcement, Women on 20s has started to make its position clear online: 2030 is too long to wait for a woman’s portrait to appear on the $20. For one thing, supporters have started peppering #TheNew10, the hashtag Treasury introduced to collect discussion about the redesign, with complaints and protest images.

Because Treasury’s website for the $10 redesign still automatically displays tweets using that hashtag, those tweets now show up on the official Treasury hype site for the new $10 bill:


Screenshot: thenew10.treasury.gov

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