Money isn’t just for buying things. Oh, no. It doubles as a tribute to the movers and shakers in society. These people are so revered that their image will be affixed to coins or bills which will be crammed into our pockets or wallets and used to buy cigarettes, toilet paper, and fast food. What a tribute! And with the upcoming American Women Quarters Program, females will make progress and be specifically honored in this way.
The concept of putting images of the high and mighty on money is as old as the day is long. And women blazed that trail. For example, Cleopatra, when she wasn’t dallying with Marc Antony, found time to issue coins with her portrait on them. From ancient Greek and Roman times, royalty has taken pride in putting their images on coins. In fact, a monarch’s portrait on coinage was a guarantee of its value in ancient societies. In modern times, Elizabeth II, the current queen of England, is featured on more coins than any other person.
But politicians also appear on money. Julius Caesar was the first Roman politician to strike coins with his own portrait during his lifetime. In particular, his image appeared on denarri, leading to a well-known Bible story where Jesus asks whose face is on the coin; when told it was Caesar’s, he retorted, “Then render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.” But the Caesar’s bold move to have himself depicted on coinage was looked down upon by many influential Romans as an unacceptable act of political arrogance. Some even suggest that Caesar’s so acting stirred up opposition ultimately leading to his assassination on the Ides of March.
The United States is no exception to putting famous folks on its legal tender. Nevertheless, our country does impose a big restriction on whose face can so appear. The person has to be DEAD. Federal law prohibits a likeness of a living person being used. Guess that’s a good news, bad news situation. Good news? You’re so famous you’ll appear on money. Bad news? You’re dead and can’t enjoy seeing it.
From the founding of the United States on, it was believed improper to honor a living person by putting their image on currency. Accordingly, the father of our country, George Washington, declined the opportunity to have his portrait appear on the first U.S. silver dollar. The tradition was formalized into law with the passage of a congressional act in 1886 prohibiting the portrayal of a living person on U.S. coinage or currency.
So what revered dead people appear on American money? Presidents far and away are chosen to appear on legal tender in this country. In fact, only two non-presidents can be seen on bills currently in circulation; these are founding fathers Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin. To relieve you from having to scrounge to find and look at the various coins and denominations of currency now in use, here’s a handy dandy list of who appears on what:
Penny. Abraham Lincoln. Honest Abe has the only presidential portrait on coinage facing to the right. [NOTE: Shouldn’t Benjamin Franklin, who said “A penny saved is a penny earned,” have been chosen for this coin? Just saying.]
Nickel. Thomas Jefferson. The coin with his face on it replaced the Buffalo Nickel. (And we all know how revered buffaloes are.)
Dime. Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Although he was a president, this coin was actually issued to honor his fight against polio leading to the founding of the March of Dimes. FDR had been diagnosed with polio himself in 1921.
Quarter. George Washington. (Guess he got downgraded in value since he declined to appear on the silver dollar while living.)
$1 Bill. George Washington. He was the first president, so he’s #1. His image is one of the oldest currency designs still being used today.
$5 Bill. Abraham Lincoln. Honestly, Honest Abe does appear on this currency.
$10 Bill. Alexander Hamilton. The first Secretary of the Treasury and subject of the smash Lin Manuel-Miranda hit “Hamilton” has appeared on the $20 bill since 1929. Today, the Secretary of the Treasury has the final say as to who is featured on U.S. currency.
$20 Bill. Andrew Jackson. Ironically, Jackson wanted to abolish paper money and is now featured on it.
$50 Bill. Ulysses S. Grant. Our nation’s 18th president has appeared on this large denomination bill since 1913.
$100 Bill. Benjamin Franklin. This founding father has appeared on C notes since 1914.
Other than being dead, what criteria are required to appear on American money? The individual must be someone whose place “in history the American people know well.” Women who have been movers and shakers in our country’s history apparently aren’t known well as there are very few historical women appearing on coins and bank notes. Martha Washington (George’s wife) and Pocahontas are the only two women who have appeared on paper bills to date.
And now there will be three. Harriet Tubman is set to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill. Ms. Tubman will be the first African-American (male or female) to be featured on U.S. currency. The new face on the $20 bill is scheduled for release in 2028.
Women will be depicted more frequently on money with the inception of the American Women Quarters Program, a four-year program running from 2022 through 2025. George Washington will appear on the obverse (side of coin bearing principal design) of each quarter with the honored woman on the flip side. Up to five women will be honored on a quarter each year of the program. The general public may submit recommendations for women to be featured through a web portal set up by the National Women’s History Museum.
The female honorees for 2022 are already set. They include author Maya Angelou, Sally Ride (the first woman in space), Wilma Mankiller (first principal female chief of the Cherokee Nation), Adelina Otero (leader in New Mexico’s suffrage movement), and Anna May Wong (first Chinese American film star in Hollywood). Oh, the places these women on quarter will go!
Honoring (now dead) men or women who have made a difference in society is an admirable action to take. But simply having an image on a coin is just a starting point. Hopefully, those with money in their pocket will take a few minutes to actually look at what they are spending and learn about the historical figures depicted. Before you show anyone that money, show some initiative and bone up on some facts about the honoree.
Do you ever take the time to look at what’s depicted on coins and bills in your possession? Should the honor of being on money be limited to the dearly departed? What American woman do you believe is deserving of being placed on quarter in the American Women Quarters Program?