Harriet Tubman and the $20 Bill
Sister Mara Rutten, RSM
February 5, 2021
On January 25, 2021, amid the flurry of activity in his first week in office, President Joe Biden’s administration also moved forward with the stalled plans to put Harriet Tubman’s image on the $20 bill. Within the hour, friends and colleagues alike vied to be the first to tell me this news, because for weeks I had been adamant that, along with a COVID-19 rescue package and immigration and criminal justice reform, we needed Harriet Tubman.
Tubman would be the first African-American on U.S. currency and the first woman on a bill in wide use. The public chose her for this honor from among a number of candidates — suffragettes, abolitionists, politicians, and activists — as part of a campaign to put a woman on the $20 bill to commemorate the centennial of the 19th amendment in 2020. It was to be the beginning of a larger movement in currency redesign that would include women and people of color on other denominations. In 2019, the Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced years-long delays for these plans.
I had voted for Harriet Tubman to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, because I admired her, and because although she appears larger than life, she embodies all the pain and promise of our country. Born into slavery, she escaped to freedom — and then risked it repeatedly in order to save scores of others. During the Civil War, she became a Union nurse, scout, and spy, and after the war became a champion of equality for both African-Americans and women. She made the world she was born into a better one, and we built on that legacy. Her heirs in the struggle ended segregation, secured the vote, and opened up economic opportunities she may never have thought possible.
But her accomplishments, like ours, were not the end of the story. She spent most of her life living in poverty, working a number of jobs to support herself and her family, including her elderly parents. The government repeatedly refused to acknowledge her contributions to the war effort and compensate her accordingly. And for all she did for the cause for freedom, she was never eligible to vote. We have also faced setbacks, for despite the progress we’ve made since her death in 1913, the income gap is staggering, and Black women in particular have been left behind, earning only $.62 to the dollar that white men earn. Legal means of voter suppression, such as poll closures, voter identification requirements, and gerrymandering have proliferated. Black and Brown communities are at an increased risk of infection and death from COVID-19 due to chronic discrimination, lack of access to healthcare, inadequate housing, and underemployment.
Putting Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill is not going to change any of this — that is up to us. It is a symbol, but symbols are powerful. What matters is that, along with all of the other social, environmental, and economic priorities of our nation, her appearance on the $20 was among them. This sends a powerful message about where we’ve been and how we’re going forward. It means that we will be reminded every day as we go about our business at toll booths and grocery stores and ATMs, that this is our country, that we come from more than just the patriarchs. That for every Thomas Jefferson there is a Sojourner Truth; for every Alexander Hamilton, a Rosa Parks; for every George Washington, a Fanny Lou Hamer. And to know, every day, that we as a nation acknowledge and rejoice in this as we struggle to live up to it.
National Partnership for Women & Families, “Black Women and the Wage Gap,” NationalPartnership.org March 2020. https://www.nationalpartnership.org/our-work/resources/economic-justice/fair-pay/african-american-women-wage-gap.pdf NationalPartnership.org
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Health Equity Considerations and Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups” ccdc.gov 24 July 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/health-equity/race-ethnicity.html