It's Not Just About Harriet Tubman: Representative King Doesn't Want Any Women on Currency

06/24/2016 05:18 pm ET Updated Jun 30, 2017
US Currency: Wads of US bills fastened with rubber bands, close-up
US Currency: Wads of US bills fastened with rubber bands, close-up

This week, Representative Steve King (R. Iowa) introduced an amendment that would bar the Treasury Department from spending any funds to redesign and issue any new currency--on coins or bills. King's amendment would keep the heroic crusader against slavery-Harriet Tubman-off of the $20 bill. His amendment also bans Sojourner Truth off of the $10, and prohibits the Treasury Department from placing Dr. King and Eleanor Roosevelt on the $5.

Representative King has a place for women--and it's not on U.S. currency. The amendment is clever: it doesn't say much, but its effect is telling. It paralyzes officials in the Treasury Department from basically doing anything to fulfill its mission to redesign currency for greater security--a mission that had a side feature to rethink who could be included on our nation's currency. The effort became more inclusive due to the bold efforts of a group known as "Women on 20s." Unlike King, the organization believes, "a woman's place is on the money." Women on 20s launched a campaign and names began rolling in.

In the end, Americans wanted Harriet Tubman on the $20 and the Treasury Department listened. Yes, it meant sending Andrew Jackson to the back or altogether off the bill. Some have defended keeping Mr. Jackson's image on the most used U.S. currency, despite his well-known history as a slave-monger and utter brutality and savage treatment of Native Americans. They embrace him, because he was the seventh president and disregard the fact that he notoriously violated treaties, illegally acquired land, was a bit of a crony "setting up his own friends as land agents, traders, and surveyors while encouraging white squatters to take over the land." He burnt down the homes of peoples he didn't like, forcing the residents out, claiming that it was all done "in the name of the "immutable laws of self-defense."

President Jackson was responsible for the infamous and bloody "Trail of Tears," which forced Cherokee peoples out of their homes and land in North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, and Alabama, where their lands ultimately fell into the hands of powerful slave holders. Thousands of Cherokee were forced to walk thousands of miles to the new place Jackson had for them. Many died along that unconscionable trek. This part of Jackson's philosophy and legacy is lost among the feverish efforts to remake and re-situate him in history.

If Jackson had been the tyrant king of England who marched peoples out of their homes, killing men, women, and children along the way, and placing them on boats toward what became America and Australia--in 2016 would that legacy be embraced as brave and nuanced for its time? Would British leadership justify such a tyrant on their currency? It turns out they would not. In the UK, Elizabeth Fry--a Quaker prison reformer is on the five pound note along with the likes of Charles Darwin, Adam Smith, and Matthew Boulton on other currency.

In the end, we continue to struggle for our vision of what the United States is and what it should be. Our noble constitution was always aspirational until slavery ended, all citizens could vote--regardless of sex and race, and equality truly applied to all peoples. Andrew Jackson did not contribute to any of that.

However, the expansive vision for currency that features women has clearly unsettled some people. Mr. Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, told reporters that the Treasury Department should "come up with another denomination, maybe the $2.00 bill." Representative King said, that "as much as [Harriet Tubman] did, she didn't change the course of history." Like it or not, Tubman was a key player in defeating slavery and aiding the Union in winning the Civil War (being the first woman to lead an armed group in the war and raid Combahee Ferry, which freed 700 slaves). All at five feet tall.

Tubman was 007 before there was such a thing, serving as a crucial spy for the Union's army. She also fought for women's equality before it was vogue or legal. This would be remarkable on its own for a free, White man, but Tubman accomplished this at a time when she was wanted dead or alive; there was a $40,000 bounty out for her capture. That mark would be over $1,200,000.00 today.

Ms.Tubman believed that the U.S. Constitution could live up to its ideals, but to do so, it had to end the shameful, degrading enterprise of forced human chattel. She had a vision for women's full enfranchisement and equality even when courts and legislatures deemed it impossible and claimed that women lacked the mental capacity to govern themselves and be educated. The truth is, Ms. Tubman helped to make America great--and risked her life to do so. Women who appreciate the right to vote can thank her and other women who will go on U.S. currency. For Americans who are proud of a nation that abolished slavery and in the wake of it erected the Fourteenth Amendment, which establishes equality for all--tip a hat to Tubman's legacy.

In the end, Representative King is consistent. Preemptively striking women like Tubman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Sojourner Truth, and Alice Paul from new currency fits a pattern of uninformed leadership regarding women's lives, their contributions to our nation, and a woman's place in our society.