Project Section: Currency
Why are there no women pictured on our paper currency? It’s not for lack of trying. Activists have petitioned the U.S. Mint and the Bureau of Engraving for over a century to include portraits of notable American women, but to no avail.
The last time a woman’s portrait appeared on a U.S. currency note was in the 19th century, before the establishment of our modern monetary system. Martha Washington’s portrait appeared on the face of the $1 Silver Certificate of 1886 and 1891, and the back of the $1 Silver Certificate of 1896. There hasn’t been a single woman’s face on our paper currency since then.
The situation with our coinage isn’t much better:
- The first woman to be pictured on an official U.S. coin was Queen Isabella of Spain, who appeared on the Columbian Expedition Quarter Dollar coin in 1893. The next coin to depict women — real women, not mythological images of “liberty” — was the 1937 North Carolina Half Dollar, which showed Virginia Dare and her mother Elinor on Roanoke Island.
- The Susan B. Anthony Dollar was introduced in 1979, and withdrawn from circulation after a year. It was briefly re-issued in 1999.
- The only other coins featuring women are essentially collector’s issues: the 1995 Special Olympics Silver Dollar, featuring Eunice Kennedy Shriver; the 1999 Silver Dollar depicting Dolley Madison; and the 1999 Sacagewea Gold Dollar.
In the 1950s William H. Brett, the Director of the U.S. Mint, responded to one petition to put a woman on the coinage with obvious condescension. He wrote:
“There is nothing to be said against a pretty, smiling face. However, officials concerned with designating United States coins feel that a more solemn countenance is more in keeping with the dignity of the United States, which the coinage represents.”
We’d like to believe that’s an attitude that no longer exists. But the fact remains that women’s faces on our money are still scarce. Consider:
- Whenever there is talk of putting a new portrait on the currency, the candidates are always male: Ronald Reagan, Martin Luther King.
- Although the U.S. Mint has created new design series in recent years — as with the state quarters — no women are included in the new images. Similarly, the Bureau of Engraving has modified the paper currency to improve resistance to counterfeiting, yet has refused to consider including more portraits of women as part of the revised designs.
- It’s not true that only “dead presidents” are depicted on the currency. Neither Benjamin Franklin nor Alexander Hamilton were presidents. Salmon P. Chase and Chief Justice John Marshall are other non-presidents whose portraits have appeared on U.S. paper currency.
Our Currency project will focus on addressing the gender bias in our coinage and currency. We will, first of all, urge the government to include more women’s images on our coins. We will also advocate that a second set of paper currency be issued, featuring images of great American women.
Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to be involved in this effort. We need volunteer coordinators, researchers, letter writers, interns, and helpers of every description (see our How You Can Help page for more).
Watch this space for updates as the project takes shape.