Whose face should be on our money?

Richard Schmidt Living and Learning
Posted 8/20/13

Novelist Jane Austen will appear on the British £10 note beginning in 2017, the 200th anniversary of her death. No one like that is likely to appear on U.S. bills any time soon.

For one thing, Austen’s novels are not the steamy, action-packed …

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Whose face should be on our money?


Novelist Jane Austen will appear on the British £10 note beginning in 2017, the 200th anniversary of her death. No one like that is likely to appear on U.S. bills any time soon.

For one thing, Austen’s novels are not the steamy, action-packed thrillers Americans prefer. Most of what happens in them — if anything happens — consists of parlor-room conversations over tea or sherry.

For another thing, Austen was a woman. The Brits are accustomed to looking at a woman on their currency, namely one Elizabeth Windsor, whose face has graced all their money since 1953, and when that will change is anybody’s guess. Austen’s portrait will appear alongside the Queen’s.

But women rarely appear on U.S. currency. Portraits of Martha Washington and Pocahontas adorned our money in the 19th century, but those bills are long out of circulation.

Only three women appear on U.S. currency today, all on coins. A dollar coin with the likeness of suffragette Susan B. Anthony was minted from 1979 to 1981. Dollar coins minted this year bear the likeness of another woman, Sacagawea, the Native American interpreter and guide for Lewis and Clark. Most of us, though, prefer a piece of paper with George Washington peering out from it.

The only other woman now on U.S. currency is Helen Keller, who appears on the back of the Alabama quarter.

We get mostly dead Presidents on our money. Law prohibits portraying a living person on U.S. government securities, and the Treasury Department clearly likes dead Presidents.

Of U.S. coins now in circulation, all but the dollar feature a dead President. Our paper money is issued in 12 denominations (though bills of $500 and higher have not been printed in many years) and nine of them show a dead President. Two show a dead secretary of the treasury (the $100 bill with Benjamin Franklin is the remaining one).

That means that all our paper money and most of our coinage has the likeness of a man on it — always a politician and always white.

The Brits have done better. Of course they have the monarchy, which simplifies the question of whose mug should adorn the pound sterling. But the Brits have often featured a second person alongside the reigning monarch, including novelists, scientists, artists, and explorers. But it’s virtually always been a man.

Last month British feminists raised a ruckus when the Bank of England announced that Winston Churchill would replace Elizabeth Fry, a 19th century prison reformer, on the £5 note. She was the only woman apart from the Queen then on any British currency. Maybe that’s why, two weeks later, the Bank of England announced that Austen’s face would grace the £10 note.

What about us? Could we put someone like Jane Austen on our currency? Perhaps Edith Wharton, the first female Pulitzer prize winning novelist? No. The current U.S. House of Representatives would never allow that because Wharton’s novel, The Age of Innocence, skewers the indolent rich.

How about a male novelist? My choice would be Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose words, though written 200 years ago, continue to delight and challenge me. But Hawthorne made an adulteress the heroine of his most famous book, so some might question his morals.

If Hilary Clinton is elected President in 2016, she could someday be the first woman on our paper currency. Problem is that half the country loves her but the other half loathes her. Maybe after she’s been dead a while, the other half will warm to her.

How about an African American? Frederick Douglass? Jesse Owens? Thurgood Marshall? Barry Bonds? (Just joking with that last one!) Barack Obama and Martin Luther King Jr., would be the obvious choices, but Obama’s not dead and he has the same problem Hilary Clinton has. King would be the first preacher on our currency, and as a preacher myself, I think it might be time for that.

Or maybe we could honor a woman and an African American at the same time. Sojourner Truth? Ella Fitzgerald? Rosa Parks? Oprah Winfrey? Oprah is also a preacher of sorts. Replace Grover Cleveland on the $1,000 bill with Oprah.

Perhaps the European Union has the right idea. They put buildings on their money.

Richard H. Schmidt is a retired Episcopal priest, editor and author who lives in Fairhope. He can be reached at courier@gulfcoastnewspapers.com.