Lew called Tubman’s story “the essential story of American democracy” and the power of an individual to make a difference, adding that “so much of what we believe has changed for better for this country is reflected in what she struggled for.”
The saga over how U.S. currency would recognize the role of women and minorities has been fraught since the Treasury’s announcement last summer that it would seek to feature a woman on the $10 bill, the next in line to be redesigned with additional features to guard against counterfeiting and to assist the blind.
The choice involved questions of who, on millions of pieces of paper currency, would represent the achievements of women and minorities in American history, and which historical figures to displace to make room for them.
In the hotly anticipated unveiling, Lew described other changes to the $5 and $10 bills. Fans of Hamilton had worried that an announcement last year by the Treasury that it would put a woman on the $10 bill would displace the father of the modern U.S. economic system. But the new $10 bill will now recognize the role of women by featuring on its back an image of the 1913 march for women’s suffrage that ended at the Treasury Department. It will also honor women’s suffrage leaders such as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Sojourner Truth.
The back of the new $5 bill, which features Abraham Lincoln on the front, will honor the civil rights movement with depictions of Martin Luther King Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt and black opera singer Marian Anderson, who famously sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939. Treasury hopes to release the design concept for the new bills by 2020, the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, but it could take years more for all the bills to enter circulation.
“It is just absolutely beautiful to replace Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman, because where Jackson represented the worst side of American history, Tubman represents the best ideals of American democracy,” said Kari Winter, a professor who studies slavery and dissent at the University at Buffalo. “She really represents the highest ideals of community, working for the common good, thinking about others beside yourself, risking everything for justice.”
Tubman, who was born a slave in Maryland about 1820, will be the first African American and first black woman whose picture appears on U.S. currency. She helped bring dozens of slaves to freedom in her lifetime through the network of abolitionists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. She escaped when she was in her 20s but returned to secretly help her family members and dozens of other slaves escape to freedom. Tubman suffered from fits and seizures, the result of physical trauma received when she was a slave, according to Catherine Clinton’s biography of Tubman, called “Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom.”
Later in life, she served as a Union Army spy during the Civil War, where she aided the North by scouting terrain and recruiting slaves as soldiers. Before her death in her late 80s or early 90s, she was an outspoken activist for women’s right to vote.
The last woman represented on U.S. notes was Martha Washington, on the $1 silver certificate, while several other women have been featured on coins.
Though it had been contemplating a change for years, Treasury was moved in part by a viral campaign in early 2015 to put a woman’s portrait on the new $20 bill in 2020 — to mark the centennial of women’s suffrage. The group “Women on $20s” received more than 600,000 votes for a choice of 15 American women, including Rosa Parks and Eleanor Roosevelt. Tubman received the most votes.
Almost everyone celebrated Lew’s decision to feature a woman. But, for some economists and historians, there was a vociferous reaction against the choice — never clearly stated but widely assumed — to relocate Hamilton from the front of the $10 bill. They noted ruefully that Hamilton was the mastermind behind America’s financial system, while Jackson, the seventh president, was a fervent opponent of a nationally integrated economic system whose tenure included a violent campaign against Native Americans.
Ben Bernanke, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, wrote in June that he was “appalled” at the idea of removing Hamilton from his position on the $10 and that honoring a woman on a paper bill was “a fine idea, but it shouldn’t come at Hamilton’s expense.”
Hamilton received added support after the breakout hit of the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical “Hamilton,” a hip-hop biography of the first Treasury secretary that is one of Broadway’s biggest sensations in years. Miranda, who first got notice for his unusual take after a White House appearance seven years ago, won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama this week for “Hamilton.”
After a visit to Washington last month, Miranda himself assured his anxious fans that Lew told him he would be “very happy” with the new $10. “#wegetthejobdone,” Miranda tweeted.
But as the Treasury gave hints it would acquiesce to pressure to retain Hamilton’s prominence, some women’s groups were alarmed that he might delay his promise to move forward in featuring a woman. On Wednesday, there was mixed reaction to the Treasury announcement.
Lisa Maatz, the vice president of government relations for the American Association of University Women, said that her organization’s members were “thrilled” by Harriet Tubman’s ascension to the front of the $20. However, the ultimate decision to keep Hamilton on the front of the $10 was a disappointment. “Obviously we don’t feel like women need to settle for just one bill. I think getting women on the front of more than one bill would be a great idea.”
Others were more positive. “I’m very happy because of the fact that these changes are going to occur simultaneously,” said the founder of the “Women on 20s” campaign, Barbara Ortiz Howard.
On Twitter, Hillary Clinton, running to be the first female president, wrote: “A woman, a leader, and a freedom fighter. I can’t think of a better choice for the $20 bill than Harriet Tubman.”
Republican presidential candidates did not offer an immediate response to the decision. In a September debate, they were asked who they’d put on the $10 bill. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz both agreed it should be Rosa Parks. (though Cruz said she would be more appropriate on the $20 bill.) John Kasich said Mother Teresa.
“United States history is not Andrew Jackson versus Harriet Tubman. It is Andrew Jackson and Harriet Tubman, both heroes of a nation’s work in progress toward great goals,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee, which Jackson also represented in Congress. “It is unnecessary to diminish Jackson in order to honor Tubman. Jackson was the first common man to be elected president.”
Others objected to the decision to feature Tubman because they said it was inconsistent with her history.
“I’d imagine the Treasury aren’t masters of irony,” feminist writer Zoe Samudzi told The Washington Post in an email, “but I’m mulling over the irony of a black woman who was bought and sold being ‘commemorated’ on the $20 bill (without also taking steps for economic recompense for black folks who are descendants of enslaved peoples) and I can’t stop shaking my head.”
An earlier version of this story mischaracterized Marian Anderson's biography. She sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939, and again at the March on Washington in 1963.