In May 2015, the advocacy group Women on 20s conducted an online poll asking which notable woman from history should replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill by 2020, 100 years after passage of the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote. Out of 600,000 people who responded, some 118,328 chose Harriet Tubman, who emerged the winner over First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt by a margin of about 7,000 votes.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew, whose department leads the way on all changes to U.S. currency, had other ideas. Last July, he announced plans for a redesign of the $10 bill, featuring a prominent woman from history—yet to be named—who was “a champion for our inclusive democracy.” The last time in history the face of the $10 had been changed was in 1929, when Alexander Hamilton replaced Andrew Jackson, who moved to (you guessed it) the $20. Lew said Hamilton would remain on the bill alongside the still-undetermined woman, which managed to disappoint not just fans of Hamilton—the original holder of his own office, who spearheaded the creation of a national banking system—but also Women on 20s, who argued that the woman selected should have her own place of honor on the redesigned currency.
Flash forward to this week, when Lew announced a much different plan. Instead of redesigning only the $10 bill, which according to official assessments is next in line for a redesign to address counterfeit threats, the U.S. Treasury’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing will make over the $20 and the $5 as well. Tubman will replace Jackson on the $20, becoming the first woman in a century and the first African American ever to grace the front of a U.S. paper note. Jackson, who has been criticized for the forcible relocation of Native Americans that occurred during his presidency, will appear in a reduced capacity on the flip side of the bill, alongside an image of the White House.
In a reversal of Lew’s earlier plan, Hamilton will retain his place of honor on the face of the redesigned $10. On the back of the bill, the current image of the U.S. Treasury building will be replaced with a depiction of a 1913 suffrage march that ended in front of that building, along with portraits of activists Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Paul and Susan B. Anthony.
Similarly, the image on the back of the $5 bill will be changed from a simple depiction of the Lincoln Memorial to an image of that monument as the backdrop for a 1939 performance by the African-American singer Marian Anderson. After Anderson was barred from performing at the segregated Constitution Hall, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt arranged for her to perform at the Lincoln Memorial. Roosevelt will appear on the back of the new $5 as well, along with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech from the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.
The last time U.S. currency underwent such a sweeping redesign was in 1929, when all paper money was reduced in size and standardized in design, to cut costs. According to Lew, the final concept and designs for all three bills will be released by 2020, the centennial of women’s suffrage in the United States. Starting with the new $10, the bills will go into circulation later in the decade, and all three could be in use by 2030. Lew declined to give a more specific timetable, saying only that he had directed the Bureau of Engraving and Printing to “work as quickly as possible” while at the same time making security requirements for the bills the “first and foremost responsibility.”
On the eve of Lew’s announcement, a group of more than three dozen prominent women wrote an open letter to the Treasury secretary addressing preliminary reports that he was planning to renege on his decision to put a woman on the face of the $10 bill. According to them, the plan to redesign the $20 instead of immediately redesigning the $10 was “a move that would require up to a decade of additional work before a woman takes her rightful place on the front of a US currency bill” and would be “a major blow to the advancement of women.”
On the other hand, Women on 20s released a statement celebrating Lew’s decision, as did lawmakers like Rep. Susan Collins of Maine, who had written to Lew urging he keep Hamilton on the $10. “This is a good solution,” Collins told the New York Times. In making the decision to boot Jackson instead of Hamilton, Lew was no doubt swayed by the phenomenal success of the Broadway musical “Hamilton.” The play’s creator and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, was recently invited to perform at the White House and just this week picked up this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Though Lew’s announcement does mean we’ll likely have to wait longer to see a woman’s face on U.S. currency, it also suggests Tubman will probably appear on more total bills in the long run. According to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve, some 8.6 billion $20 bills were in circulation as of December 31, 2015, compared with 1.9 billion $10 bills.