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If you have no idea who Harriet Tubman is, you’re not alone

A wax likeness of renowned abolitionist and conductor of the Underground Railroad Harriet Tubman is unveiled at Madame Tussauds in February 2012. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Yesterday, the Treasury announced that it was putting Harriet Tubman on the front of the $20 bill and booting Andrew Jackson to the back of it, prompting millions of Americans to turn to Google and ask: "Who is Harriet Tubman?"

Google reported that search interest in the 19th century abolitionist spiked 4,250 percent after the announcement, and that questions about Tubman — who she was, what she did, when was she born — were the top questions people were asking on that site yesterday.

Choosing the first woman to grace the nation's paper currency in decades is tricky, delicate business. The Treasury Department got off on the wrong foot last year when it announced a campaign to replace Alexander Hamilton — father of the Treasury and Broadway rock star — on the $10 bill. The obvious choice, as many people pointed out at the time, was to boot Andrew Jackson, known primarily for a brutal genocidal campaign against native Americans, off the $20.

But if you can believe it, Treasury's initial plan last year, which didn't become known until this week, was even more muddle-headed. It would have simply replaced Alexander Hamilton with, of all people, Susan B. Anthony — the women's rights leader who today is known primarily for appearing on not one but two failed iterations of the $1 coin, first from 1979-1981 and then again in 1999.

Fortunately, the Treasury department wised up, thanks in no small part to a viral social campaign to let Americans decide which woman to put on the $20. Harriet Tubman won that campaign, and that seems to have influenced Treasury's decision to make her the new face of the $20.

But if all of yesterday's frantic Googling is any indication, plenty of Americans don't even know who she is. Which got us wondering — how well-known is Tubman, relative to other pioneering women in American history? This isn't just an academic question, since it informs why you would put a person on a banknote to begin with: Do you do it to honor the universally acknowledged achievements of a well-known figure? Or do you do it to raise the profile of a person whose accomplishments have been overlooked?

To answer the question, I turned, naturally, to Google. They've digitized a huge corpus of English-language books going back to the 1800s and even beyond. And they let you search it, to see how often a given set of words — in this case, women's names — have appeared in books. This can be a useful, although imperfect, barometer for how well-known someone is, and how much they've influenced civic life in this country.

When I plugged in the names of all 16 candidates considered by the Women on 20s campaign, this is what I got:

As of 2008, the latest year for which Google lets you search their scanned book data, Rosa Parks was the woman most frequently appearing in books, just barely edging out Susan B. Anthony. Rachel Carson, of "Silent Spring" fame, came in just ahead of Harriet Tubman, who was fourth.

A few interesting patterns stand out in this chart. First, you can see how the profiles of a number of women, including Anthony, Margaret Sanger and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, rise rapidly starting in the mid-1960s. This corresponds roughly with the rise of "second-wave" feminism in those years, and the fight for reproductive rights and the Civil Rights Act.

You can see another group of women gain prominence in the mid-'80s and '90s. Interestingly, these are primarily African American women — Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman among them. This likely reflects a renewed interest during this time in the contributions of African American women to U.S. history.

Sharp-eyed readers might notice that there are only 15 women on this chart, while the Women on 20s campaign included 16 candidates for the $20 bill. That's because I had to leave one notable woman out because, at least as far as book mentions are concerned, she towered above the rest.

Here's what the chart looks like when you add Eleanor Roosevelt to the mix.

Roosevelt transformed the position of first lady from that of a dedicated spouse to one of an active political adviser. After Franklin Roosevelt's death, she went on to chair the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, where she took an active role in drafting and adopting the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which still guides international law today.

So while Harriet Tubman is far from the most well-known of the candidates for the $20, that's probably a good thing. As yesterday's Googling seems to suggest, putting Tubman on that bill represents an opportunity for many Americans to brush up on their women's history.

Here's the new plan for the $20, $10 and $5 bills (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)