Tubman currency change incites feminist debate

“The Treasury promised to put Harriet Tubman’s face on the $10 bill but now we have to wait until 2030 for the $20 bill. Man, women haven’t been this deceived by a Bill since Cosby,” “The Nightly Show” host Larry Wilmore said when weighing in on the $20 bill debate at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on Saturday, April 30.

On Wednesday, April 20, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew announced that American abolitionist, humanitarian, armed scout and spy Harriet Tubman will be placed on the front of the $20 bill, replacing President Andrew Jackson. Immediately the media, politicians and the general public began to debate this decision.

Opponents argued that Tubman did not fight for capitalism, free trade or competitive markets, and that putting her on the bill would distract from existing inequalities in America. These inequalities include the wage gap between men and women, which affects African-American and Latina women the most.

The supporters of the bill change brought up Jackson’s historical background as a slave owner, as well as his initiation of the forced migration of thousands of Native Americans in what historians now call the Trail of Tears. Furthermore, Jackson had voiced his preference for a currency of silver and gold as opposed to paper money, so it never made sense that he was the face of the $20 dollar bill.

To some degree the decision to put Tubman on the bill does represent a step forward in America’s fight against gender inequality. However, another view to take into account is the feminist perspective, which sees Tubman’s nomination as disrespectful and ignorant of what she was really fighting for during her lifetime. Some argue that no women should be placed on any United States currency, at least until economic gender inequality is eradicated.

From a realist perspective it seems naive, if not foolhardy, to believe that economic injustice against women will ever completely end. It has been ingrained in our country and culture for years and it will take many more decisions and efforts similar to this one to make substantial progress against gender inequality.

While contemplating his experience during the Vietnam War, Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara remarked that we will never change human nature.

“It isn’t that we aren’t rational. We are rational. But reason has limits,” McNamara said.

I argue that this decision is a well intended step away from a male-dominated culture and that critiquing it so harshly will diminish the significance of this decision.

“Baby steps” seems to be the perfect term to describe this particular change. As this effort to recognize women’s role in United States history is made, there will be a lot of obstacles and hindrances along the way. While there is infinitely more work to be done when it comes to ridding the country of sexism, placing an influential woman on United States currency is a good step in changing the current status of gender inequality. While unlikely to please everyone or reach justice for all, efforts like this are important if we are serious about acknowledging men and women as equals.

Sam Pattinasarane ’18 (pattin1@stolaf.edu) is from Jakarta, Indonesia. He majors in Asian Studies and Political Science.

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