Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Girl Who Asked Obama to Put Women on Banknotes Opposes Delay

  • Sofia, then 9, wrote to president asking for a woman on money
  • Treasury backing off promise to put woman on $10 bill `soon'

When a 9-year-old girl named Sofia wrote to President Barack Obama in 2014 to ask him why U.S. money didn’t feature women’s faces, her innocent question and penciled list of worthy candidates helped galvanize the administration’s commitment to making it happen as soon as possible.

Now, Sofia, who turns 11 this week, is adding her voice to an outcry from women’s groups about an apparent change of heart by Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew that may delay for years the placement of a woman’s image on the front of U.S. bills.

The Massachusetts girl and her mother are still weighing how best to make their case -- whether in private or through a more public effort to sway Lew before it’s too late. “It would be a huge step backward after all this,” said the mother, Kim B., who requested their last name be withheld to protect her daughter’s privacy.

Sofia said the most important thing to her is to get a woman on the front of U.S. currency expeditiously. She said in an interview that the two years she’s waited so far already seems like a long time.

‘Kind of Promised’

“I feel like they kind of promised us it would be on the front in 2020,” Sofia said in an interview. “I want a woman to be on the front of the $20. I think that would great. Except I think that would take way too much time.”

Sofia wrote the letter as a third grader after a classroom assignment where students researched famous people and gave visual presentations on them. She said she noticed many of the students who researched men used pictures of money featuring those men for their presentations, but that none of the women subjects had images of them on money. The project was the light-bulb moment for her to go home and try to do something about the disparity.

The dozen women that Sofia suggested in her hand-written note ranged from Betsy Ross, credited with making the first American flag, to poet Emily Dickinson, to civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks. In a 2015 McClatchy-Marist poll, former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt was chosen over abolitionist Harriet Tubman and Native American guide Sacagawea. Others suggested included pilot Amelia Earhart and Sandra Day O’Connor, the first female Supreme Court justice.

After Sofia’s letter to the president, and a national campaign to put a historically significant woman on the $20 to replace former President Andrew Jackson, the Treasury last June instead announced it would put a woman on the face of a new $10 bill, possibly as one of two images or in rotation with Alexander Hamilton, who founded the U.S. financial system and whose portrait now decorates the bill.

Counter-Campaign

The reason was timing: The $10s were the first bills in line to be updated, while it could be several years and perhaps as long as a decade before the new $20s would be ready under a schedule set by the government, it was explained at the time. The new $10s were to be unveiled in 2020 and put in circulation soon after.

In the intervening months, however, the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton” has fueled a counter-campaign, whose proponents include the show’s creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda, to keep Hamilton as the sole face on the front of the $10.

Lew has for several weeks hinted, without saying explicitly, that the U.S. could keep Hamilton as the only face of the $10, while weaving pictures of women into the backs of $10s and $5s and eventually putting out $20s that carry a woman’s face. This scenario would allow Lew to say the U.S. is giving women more exposure by putting women on three denominations rather than one.

The Treasury had no immediate comment on its latest deliberations.

Wrong Message

Kim B. said she and her daughter don’t see it that way. Neither does “Women on 20s,” the group that led that initial nationwide campaign. These women say if rescinding plans for the $10 delays the debut of a woman on the front of any U.S. paper currency, it would send the wrong message to girls and women. Women on 20s has been supportive of a woman sharing the face of the $10 with Hamilton, but the group also wants new $20s with a woman replacing Jackson to be produced simultaneously with the new $10s. Sofia’s mother said she wants to avoid delays to having a woman on the face of a bill.

A separate group, the Girls’ Lounge, started a White House petition on April 13 to compel Treasury to keep its commitment to put a woman on the front of the $10 and created a Twitter hashtag - #NotGoingBack - to raise attention. Sofia and her mom signed the petition, said Kim B.

“I do believe that it’s the desire of the American people to see a woman on the portrait side of a bill,” Kim B. said. “That is an awesome thing. But it’s not an awesome thing when Sofia is 25 years old” before it happens. “We’re missing an entire generation where we send a positive message of ‘we value girls in this country.’”

Sofia thought she had been part of a successful campaign, and that the announcement meant the decision was final. Her mother said that a few weeks ago, she sat her daughter down and explained what was happening; since then, the pair have bonded over watching and reading Lew’s statements on the subject and the news coverage.

Susan Ades Stone, executive director of Women on 20s, said what she fears is that Lew would send an unintended message if he reneges on plans to put a woman on the $10. It would show girls, she said, that, “Men make these choices. Men push women aside when push comes to shove. Men still tell us who we should be honoring and how.”

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