The Ten Dollar Bill and Women’s History

Like Nora, I’ve been thinking about the meaning of putting a woman’s face on American currency.

Last spring, the women on 20s campaign was an optional final paper topic in my Social Science in American History course. We had ended the semester on memory, and for the final exam students could choose between a few different articles that all dealt with the role of history and memory in contemporary American culture and write a reflective essay on how what they had learned over the semester helped them to understand the issue at hand (the other articles focused on the campaign to change the name of the Redskins and the debates about the treatment of LBJ in “Selma”). I was surprised that none of my students had heard about the 20s campaign—it had been all over my social media for a while, but apparently had not yet trickled down to the undergraduate population over here. They wrote some wonderful essays. Their general assumption was that nothing would come of the campaign. A woman’s face wouldn’t replace Jackson’s, or any of the other faces on the bills for that matter, and it probably wouldn’t make much of a difference even if it did.

And then of course the treasury department made its announcement this June.

The announcement came out just as I was in the process of changing that syllabus to create a course on history and memory, and I was very excited to add a full week to the currency issue. That was two weeks ago, and it was a great session. The Republican presidential candidates were kind enough to provide me with an entry into the discussion that was firmly centered in the question of how integrated women’s history is (or isn’t) in general histories of the United States. What does it mean for how we talk about women’s history, I asked them, when several well-educated members of the political elite could not think of a single significant woman from American history off the top of their heads?

We spent Monday’s class talking about women’s history. I had them write the first five names that came to their minds when they thought of important figures in American history. Then I had them flip their sheets over and write down the first five names that came to their minds when they thought of important women in American history. We compared lists and talked about why they put down the people that they did and how the second list was harder to complete. A lot of presidents and political figures on the first list. A lot of first ladies on the second, as well as a mix of reformers and writers. I asked what they think about when they think about those people. We were all struck by the fact that many of the names on the second list were just names to them—not many had a good sense of who those women actually were or why they mattered. I gave a mini-lecture on the history of women’s history as a field and of the studies about women’s placements in secondary-level US history textbooks. Then we read Ellen DuBois’s wonderful reflections on the challenges of writing Through Women’s Eyes, a US history textbook that attempts to tell the story of the United States history through the perspective of American women. I highly recommend the article for thinking about how to combine the timelines and narrative structures of US history and US women’s history. As she points out here, certain themes and events have mattered more to one story than the other, and that is important for us all to think about as we teach and as we write those histories.

This all provided an excellent groundwork for our discussion about the currency question at the next class session. We had already been thinking about how the story of US history is told and how women fit in to that larger narrative. I had them explore the women on 20s website and assigned a series of short readings about the questions that commemoration on currency raises and we had a great discussion. We talked about Hamilton vs. Jackson, about how to decide which woman’s face should go on the bill, and about what we are saying about any of these people when we put their faces on our money. We asked what the standards are, or ought to be, for the figures who get celebrated in that way, and whether it really matters anyway.

It was powerful to talk about the currency issue in the classroom. I was surprised and delighted to see how seamlessly it worked as a way to get them interested in the broader questions of women’s representation in American history more generally. As they reflected on the history education that they had received in high school, they all recognized the world of textbooks that either ignored women’s history or placed it in supplemental sections alongside the main text. They started out not sure that it would make any difference at all if a woman’ face was on a bill. After all, they never look at their cash. In the end, they decided that it does. Those faces say something about who we were and who we are as a country, and by commemorating the people on our bills we are also saying something about who we want to be in the future.

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