Liberty was a lady.

Photographer: Niklas Halle'n/AFP/Getty Images

When Women Were on the Money

Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to the Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter at @smihm.
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Should a woman replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill? The feminist organization WomenOn20s thinks so. After soliciting nominations over the past year, it announced the final four this month: Eleanor Roosevelt, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and Cherokee chief Wilma Mankiller.

The WomenOn20s website declares that “our money does say something about us, about what we value.” Fair enough. But it's worth remembering that this form of tribute has an ambiguous history: Women -- if only as allegorical figures or in idealized form -- were once ubiquitous on the nation’s currency. They only lost their place of honor once their flesh and blood counterparts got the right to vote.

In fact, a woman was on the first coin from the U.S. Mint. Congress had mandated that it bear “an impression emblematic of Liberty,” which apparently meant a woman with flowing hair.

These coins, however, were only made until the 1830s, and in small quantities. Instead, most of the money then in circulation originated with hundreds of private, state-chartered banks, which produced the nation’s de facto paper currency until the Civil War. Here, too, depictions of women dominated. And as with government-issued coins, they often presented ethereal representations of Liberty or Justice, or women in American Indian garb impersonating Columbia or America.

They also appeared quite literally as goddesses: Venus, Ceres, Athena, among others. Or in scenes drawn from mythology: Leda frolicking with the infamous swan, or Juno Moneta, the protectress of funds in Rome. 

But these women, of course, were merely figments of the male imagination, which explains why more than a few were shown in states of undress.

Yet plenty of anonymous working women also graced bank notes before the Civil War, with milk maids the most common. 

“From the simple testimony of the currency,” numismatist Richard Doty once observed, "milking cows must have been the growth industry of the nineteenth century.” Everywomen also showed up harvesting wheat, churning butter, even tending looms in factories.

These, too, tended to be idealizations, though the depictions were more likely to be sentimental than sexual. There also was a more personal form of homage, as bankers often put pictures of their wives or daughters on the notes they issued. 

Others went with recognizable public figures: Pocahantas, Martha Washington and Florence Nightangle. Most prevalent all was the Swedish opera phenomenon Jenny Lind, the Beyoncé of her day. She had become an international superstar in the 1840s thanks to the promotional prowess of impresario P. T. Barnum. She soon surfaced on several bills, including those issued by a bank run by Barnum himself.

When the Civil War erupted, the Confederacy issued its own paper money. Lucy Pickens, the aristocratic wife of South Carolina Governor Francis Pickens, appeared on multiple iterations of the soon-to-be worthless Confederate currency. In the North, allegorical depictions of Liberty now graced new federal paper money nicknamed “greenbacks.”

By the end of the Civil War, the old private bank notes were taxed out of existence, replaced by uniform notes issued by a new system of national banks. These notes, like the greenbacks, self-consciously embraced a new, nationalist iconography. Out with the milkmaids, scantily-clad nymphs and minor celebrities of the old private paper currencies; in with contemporary male leaders: Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, and Abraham Lincoln himself.

Still, women remained suitable for allegories on the new federal money. And the female image of Liberty retained a monopoly on the coins. No “real” women adorned the money, however, with the exception of Martha Washington, who secured a distinctly B-list posting on the one-dollar silver certificate of 1886.

As the 20th century dawned, and women's suffrage became law, the process of removing them from the money supply was well underway. This was a gradual but seemingly relentless process. Liberty and her allegorical sisters started to by replaced by men on paper money and coins: a stern-looking Indian and a (male!) buffalo on the nickel; and a pantheon of dead founding fathers, presidents and military leaders.

The obliteration was complete by the end of World War II, just as women gradually started to make their way into positions of power and authority in the larger economy. Dead white men ruled the legal tender.

There have been attempts to put women on the money in recent decades: the reviled Susan B. Anthony dollar, for example, and its equally unpopular successor depicting Sacagawea. But given that women’s symbolic dominance has an inverse relationship to their actual political and economic power, WomenOn20s’s claim that our money reflects what we value may not be quite on the money.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Stephen Mihm at smihm1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net