Abolitionist Harriet Tubman: The Next Face of the $20 Bill


Last week, when Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew announced that Harriet Tubman would replace Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill, he said he wanted more conversation about women in U.S. democracy.

Well, he got it … sort of.

There has been no end of media chatter since his announcement that the 19th-century abolitionist and civil rights advocate would be this treasury’s pick as the woman to be featured on the U.S. $20 bill (and elevated, at that, from the proposed $10 bill). The issue has raised debate about race, politics, presidential candidates and foibles of the current administration. It’s raised conversation on just about every controversial topic but one: women’s rights.

To talk about women in democracy these days, we are compelled to talk about women’s rights. And Harriet Tubman’s history personifies that discussion. She didn’t just advocate for a more just society, she lived and fought for it. She idealized it in her words, inspiring many to look past race and recognize the bravery and worth of a life that was dedicated to human rights.

When we celebrate her memory, it’s her words we most often call to mind to symbolize the character of a who she was: “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.”

It may not seem to reflect the vernacular of today, where a collision course between global warming and environmental apathy is often the topic that symbolizes our generation’s battles, but it offers a much-needed reminder: It is often the human spirit that characterizes our era and how we face up to a challenge, not the battle itself.

And as to whether a woman should indeed be featured on one of the country’s most circulated currency bills, perhaps the questions that really should be asked are: What took the treasury so long to do so? Why has it waited hundreds of years? And why will there be only one?

The answer to all of these questions isn’t hard to see: Change comes in small victories.

And huge accomplishments come with patience, as Harriet Tubman also pointed out when she noted that it takes “patience and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.” It took 219 years for the country to elect its first black president. It took more than a hundred years to finally have a global discussion about climate change.

The new $20 release will be timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote. Lew says that other currency changes will happen at that time but few, I imagine, will be as stirring or thought-provoking as Harriet Tubman’s.

Putting the image of a female African American hero on the face of the $20 bill to remind the next generation that women, too, played a role in the founding of this country is a great first step in our dialogue about women and democracy. But it shouldn’t be the last.

 Image (cropped): Public Domain/TradingCardsNPS