CONCORD, N.H. – The first woman to serve as both governor and U.S. senator is backing a campaign to put a female face on the $20 bill.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen filed legislation this week that would create a citizens panel to recommend an appropriate choice to the treasury secretary. She is hoping to build on the work of Women on 20s, a national campaign pushing for new $20 bills by 2020, the 100th anniversary of the constitutional amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote.
"I think there are a lot of opportunities that we sometimes don't think about to point out the significant contributions women have made in U.S. history," Shaheen said. "And this is one of those opportunities."
The current portrait of former President Andrew Jackson has stared out from the face of the $20 since 1928. But paper currency is redesigned every seven to 10 years to thwart counterfeiters, and the latest $20 notes entered circulation in 2003. Changes can be ordered by the treasury secretary or president without an act of Congress, and Shaheen's bill wouldn't compel either to do so. Still, she and campaign supporters hope it will boost public support for redesigning the currency and spur broader conversation about the achievements of American women.
Barbara Ortiz Howard founded Women on 20s last year to honor historic women by making them visible in everyday lives. With help from experts in women's history, the group compiled a list of 15 candidates that was narrowed to four finalists after a month of online voting: former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, escaped slave and leading abolitionist Harriet Tubman, civil rights icon Rosa Parks and former Cherokee Nation Chief Wilma Mankiller. More than 230,000 people voted in the first week after the finalists were announced April 6, said the group's executive director, Susan Ades Stone.
Stone said voting will continue as long as interest remains high, though the group may approach the White House in the next few weeks.
"The name of the winner is not what this is about. What it's about is showing that there's wide support for a woman on our paper currency," she said. "We are not under any illusions that the person who comes out of our polling will be the person who ends up on a bill because there is a process and that process usually involves empaneling a group of experts to make certain design choices."
In a speech in Missouri last year, President Barack Obama described getting a letter from a young girl suggesting a long list of women to put on currency, and he said he thought that was "a pretty good idea." Although others have started online petitions urging the change, none has reached the 100,000-signature threshold required for an official White House response, Stone said.
Shaheen, a Democrat, became the first woman elected governor of New Hampshire in 1996 and the first woman in the nation to serve as both governor and U.S. senator when she was elected to Congress in 2008. She contrasted the current social-media-driven campaign to the effort that led to the release of the Susan B. Anthony dollar coins in 1979.
"That was really before we had the social media we have today, but I remember a lot of people weighing in on that," she said. "But paper currency is still really the currency of choice ... so I think this is an important way to recognize women's contributions just as we recognize men's contributions."
According to the Department of the Treasury, Martha Washington is the only woman whose portrait has appeared on a U.S. currency note. It appeared on $1 silver certificates in 1886, 1891 and 1896. Given that the $20 is overdue for an update, the cost of redesigning it to include a female portrait would be nominal, Shaheen said. Although she declined to pick one woman, Shaheen said some of her top choices include Tubman, Roosevelt, former first lady Abigail Adams and Frances Perkins, the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet.
U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster, a New Hampshire Democrat, said she is proud to support the legislation.
"Although half of America's population are women, we have yet to see a face on paper currency that exemplifies the women leaders in our society," Kuster said. "It's far past time to honor the important women who helped shape our nation's history."