Women of note: Meet the contenders to be new female face of U.S. $10 bill

After buying itself more time late last year, the U.S. Treasury is still deciding which woman will be the first to have her image featured prominently on the revamped $10 US banknote. Whoever it will be, however, her appearance could come at the expense of a beloved Founding Father.

Bookmakers favour Harriet Tubman for the $10 as women's movement calls for booting Andrew Jackson from $20

David Moran, managing director of The Hamilton in Washington, D.C., holds a $10 bill bearing the face of his restaurant's namesake, Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, whose portrait hangs behind him. Moran says he is '100 per cent' supportive of a movement to bring female representation to a dollar bill but is reluctant to see Hamilton demoted. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

When the U.S. Treasury Department launched a search for America's most noteworthy woman it meant just that. 

The Treasury announced plans last June to revamp the $10 banknote and, for the first time, feature the portrait of a woman on the bill.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew pledged to unveil the new face of the $10 bill by the end of 2016 and to have the bill in circulation some time after 2020.

But after an unexpected response to an open call for potential candidates and a public outcry over the demotion — though not outright removal — of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, the department pushed its deadline back.

"As a result of the tremendous amount of engagement, we have many more ideas than we had originally anticipated," a Treasury spokeswoman said. "Therefore, we are taking additional time to carefully review and consider a range of options to honour the theme of democracy as well as the notable contributions women have made to our country."

A mock-up redesign of a $20 bill replaces seventh U.S. president Andrew Jackson with abolitionist and human-rights champion Harriet Tubman. The redesign of the $20 was proposed by the group Women on 20s, but the U.S. Treasury says it is instead focused on revamping the $10 note, which is due for an update for security reasons. (Women On 20s)

The announcement of the name is now expected to come in 2016.

That hasn't stopped the bookies from setting their odds.

The list of names includes suffragist Susan B. Anthony, American Red Cross founder Clara Barton, former slave turned abolitionist Sojourner Truth, the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation Wilma Mankiller and civil rights activist Rosa Parks. 

The website projected former first lady and human-rights champion Eleanor Roosevelt would become the face of the new $10 note. The website had Harriet Tubman, renowned for her role ferrying slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad, as the favourite, at 3/1 odds.

(Less conventional betting choices offered online have included Oprah, Marilyn Monroe and Kim Kardashian.)

Tubman, Roosevelt favoured

Of the main candidates, Tubman appears to be a popular choice, if not a safe bet. A poll of 600,000 people last spring unrelated to the Treasury's call for input on the $10 bill found that Tubman was also the leading choice for a revamped $20 bill, followed by Roosevelt, Parks and Mankiller.

Susan Ades Stone, left, and Barbara Ortiz Howard are behind the Women on 20s campaign to get a distinguished woman from American history printed on a redesigned $20 bill. (Courtesy Susan Ades Stone)

"Harriet Tubman, I think, is the embodiment of the type of woman that we should be putting on a pedestal, and that's what our paper currency is, it's a pocket monument," said Susan Ades Stone, executive director of Women on 20s, the non-profit group that organized the poll.

"Tubman was a freedom fighter. She not only fought for equality for all people in terms of slavery, but she also fought for women's rights to vote. She was a suffragist, so she believed in equality for all, no matter their colour or gender."

The Women on 20s organization has petitioned U.S. President Barack Obama and the Treasury Department since May to devote a new $20 bill exclusively to women.

"When Jack Lew announced in June that he was [updating] the $10 bill for reasons of security and anti-counterfeiting, we questioned whether they could do more," said Ades Stone said. "They could still do the $20, as well."

A 1943 file photo of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt on the White House lawn. Online bookies have favoured Roosevelt as well as Harriet Tubman as strong candidates to be put on a $10 bill. (Associated Press)

The year 2020, when the new note's design will be unveiled — but not necessarily the year it will go into general circulation — is also significant because it will mark 100 years since the first U.S. federal election year in which women exercised their hard-won right to vote.

Supporters of the Women on 20s campaign have criticized the front-side placement of Andrew Jackson's image on the $20 note, which has been there since 1928, because the seventh U.S. president was a slave owner and a signatory to the Indian Removal Act, which authorized the forced relocation of thousands of aboriginal people. 

Another "great irony" of Jackson's placement on the $20 bill, says Ades Stone, was Jackson's well-documented opposition to central banking as well as paper money.

"He believed in hard currency and coins," she said. "So, he would definitely be the first in line to say take me off of our paper money."

Hamilton highly regarded

The non-profit Women on 20s, which has campaigned to get a woman exclusively on the $20 bill, released a mock-up tableau of a dozen prominent American women whom the group says it would like to see featured on a future $20 note. The group is running a contest to see if people can identify or name all 12 women in their tableau. (Women On 20s)

Ades Stone takes a softer line on Hamilton, acknowledging that as the architect of the country's banking system, he deserves a place on the bill. Lew himself has said an image of the revered former chief aide to Gen. George Washington will still appear somewhere on the $10 bill and that he remains "a hero" to the Treasury Department as its first secretary.

"Preserve Hamilton on the $10 if possible, yes, that would satisfy a lot of people," Ades Stone said.

At the same time, she says her organization "would have preferred to see a woman alone on a bill as a tribute."

Ben Bernanke, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, said he was "appalled" by the decision to "demote" Hamilton, suggesting instead that Jackson be dropped from the $20 bill to make way for a woman to be honoured.

His sentiments are in line with a broader "Hamilton moment" that is part of the zeitgeist in the U.S.

A hip-hop, pop-infused retelling of the life of "the $10 Founding Father without a father" by composer and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda is blowing up on Broadway. The musical, called simply Hamilton, has been a cultural phenomenon, selling out through September 2016 and drawing audience members as varied as the Obamas, Meryl Streep, Dick Cheney, Beyoncé and Jay Z.

At the trendy The Hamilton restaurant in Washington, D.C., where a portrait of the chief author of the Federalist Papers hangs on the wall, the eatery's managing director David Moran was taking the movement to sideline Hamilton almost personally.

"The restaurant is named after Alexander Hamilton. The Treasury is right down the street. So yes, we want him to stay prominently on the $10," he said. "We're 100 per cent for female representation on a dollar bill… So, let's give women the $20. That's what they really deserve. It's certainly a bill that's used much more in circulation."

The $20 bill is circulated four times more than the $10 note. According to the U.S. Federal Reserve, approximately 1.9 billion $10 bills were in circulation as of 2014. 

The last time any woman's portrait graced paper money was in 1886, when Martha Washington appeared on a $1 silver certificate, though the currency fell out of circulation by the turn of the century.

The current $10 bill features the nation's first Treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton. The Treasury Department said the banknote is next in line for a revamp for security reasons and will be introduced after 2020. (Reuters)


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong


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