A Woman on the $10 Bill? Big Deal

Posted: Jun 19, 2015 10:45 AM

With the announcement this week by Treasury Secretary Jack Lew that there will be a woman on the $10 bill, I found myself daydreaming about all the new equality that will presumably come with such a historic and meaningful honor.

Because, surely, with all the current economic problems we're attempting to solve -- a still unstable job market, widening income inequality, rising poverty -- the United States government wouldn't waste its valuable time on some kind of empty symbolic gesture. Surely, putting a woman on a U.S. banknote will be an important step forward for gender equality and advancing women's rights, with a tangible, measurable return on investment, so to speak.

Sorry to be sarcastic, but I just can't summon the excitement to celebrate something so trivial and, in a way, insulting to women.

The idea that putting a historically important woman -- like Hillary Clinton's choice, Harriet Tubman, or Nancy Pelosi's choice, Frances Perkins -- on the $10 bill is a gift of some sort is setting the bar pretty low. Especially for feminists, who you'd think would be pretty wary of these kinds of symbolic giveaways that look more like appeasement than action.

The movement to put a woman on U.S. currency has been pushed forward by a group called Women On 20s. According to its website, the organization "aims to compel historic change by convincing President Obama that now is the time to put a woman's face on our paper currency" -- namely, by kicking Andrew Jackson off the $20 bill.

Alas, not only must women settle for the $10; the Treasury Department also has stated that "the image of Alexander Hamilton will remain part of the $10 note." How's that for historic, substantive change? As feminist Heather Landy pointed out on Quartz, "Of course they couldn't just give a woman her own note, right? She can just share it." And, she added, referring to the oft-cited but not entirely accurate liberal talking point that women make less than men for equal work, "While we're at it, why doesn't the government just give women a 78-cent note and call it a dollar?"

I always thought feminism had a pretty complicated relationship with capitalism. Just two years ago, feminist Nancy Fraser wrote critically that feminists had in fact grown too comfortable with capitalism. She fretted that the women's lib movement "has become entangled in a dangerous liaison with neoliberal efforts to build a free-market society," and lamented that feminists who once "criticized a society that promoted careerism" now "celebrates female entrepreneurs."

Why, after decades of complaining that our American economic system is oppressive, male-organized, unfair and broken, are modern feminists now begging to be featured on its most famous symbol?

Moreover, what good are symbols in confronting reality? Putting a woman on the $10 bill has nothing to do with ending domestic violence, for example, or with preventing college rape. It won't change the difficulties a woman faces balancing work and home life.

If only that were the case.

I'm sure in Nigeria, women would gladly trade in their spot on the 50 naira note for the right not to be legally assaulted by their husbands. And I imagine Chadian women would relinquish their spot on various franc notes for a higher literacy rate.

Or in the Bahamas, where it's legal for a husband to sexually assault his wife if she is over the age of 14, I doubt they'd say having the Queen of England on their banknotes has vastly improved their position in society.

Women in our own country face actual injustices every day, too. Glancing at Frances Perkins on the $10 bill as I quickly pass it to a cashier won't do much to solve them. Aim higher, gals.