Five years from now, on the hundredth anniversary of women’s suffrage in the U.S., an American woman of distinction will appear on the ten-dollar bill, with Alexander Hamilton retained somewhere on the note. This decision, announced last week by Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew, has been met with considerable puzzlement from those who wonder why we would demote Hamilton, the founder of our financial system, instead of Andrew Jackson, who was the architect of the Trail of Tears, an opponent of central banking, and the target of the grassroots campaign to get a woman on the twenty-dollar bill, led by the group Women on 20s. As Vauhini Vara recently wrote, some asked, too, why the first woman to appear on paper currency in the United States should have to do so alongside a male chaperone, and they wondered whether the Treasury would, after holding public consultations this summer, honor Harriet Tubman, the choice of those who voted in an online poll conducted by Women on 20s. The current debate over American currency resonates with the complicated history of how and why women have been represented on money, a history that provides insight into the ways women have wielded and represented authority through the ages.
The first non-mythological or allegorical woman to appear on a Roman coin was the third wife of Mark Antony, Fulvia Flacca Bambula (c. 83–40 B.C.), who wielded considerable influence during the rocky period of civil war following the assassination of Julius Caesar. While Antony was in Alexandria, consorting with Cleopatra, Plutarch writes, Fulvia was “carrying on war at Rome with [Octavius] Caesar in defense of her husband’s interests.” Around this time, the Roman mint issued coins depicting Fulvia as the goddess of victory, a recognition both of her service to Rome and of her skill as a leader, albeit as a proxy for Antony. Cleopatra, who ascended to the Egyptian throne, alongside her brother, after their father died in 51 B.C., was a rare example in the ancient world of a woman who held formal political leadership and appeared on coinage by virtue of her own official authority.
Other women who appeared on Roman currency were honored largely because they were related to male leaders: Octavia the Younger, a sister of Augustus Caesar; Livia Drusilla, the mother of the Emperor Tiberius; and Antonia the Younger, a daughter of Mark Antony and Octavia. The same was true of the mothers, daughters, and sisters of powerful men who appeared alone on Byzantine coins. In their essay “The Gender of Money,” the University of Birmingham professor Leslie Brubaker and her student Helen Tobler argue that royal women made it onto coins in the Byzantine Empire because they represented the continuity of the dynastic line—a bulwark against upheaval and chaos.
This association of stability with a coin bearing a woman’s face became more tangible in England centuries later, with the financial reforms introduced by Elizabeth I. At the time she was crowned, in 1558, the country’s currency had been drastically devalued. Her father, Henry VIII, had, in order to support his military campaigns against France and his personal extravagances, used one of the only methods available to monarchs to raise cash before the advent of national debt: minting coins with just a touch of silver and gold and circulating them at the same value as coins made entirely of precious metals. Once people caught on to the fact that the new coins were comprised primarily of copper, they began hoarding the old ones, which made it harder for the Crown to source gold. The copper coins also adversely affected foreign transactions, undermining confidence in the value of English currency and sullying England’s international reputation. After ascending to the throne, Elizabeth and her advisers William Cecil and Sir Thomas Gresham devised a rescue plan. The Royal Mint soon began to melt down the debased currency, and new coins, bearing Elizabeth’s impressive profile, were minted in precious metals. The currency was restored in the eyes of the public, and the crown earned the tidy sum of fifty thousand pounds (about twenty-two million of today’s dollars) via seigniorage.
Elizabeth’s portrait on the new coins made literal the association between her person, her title, and the fiscal power of the country she ruled—a kind of financial body politic. Other powerful European women appeared alone on coins in Elizabeth’s wake, among them Anne of England (who ruled from 1702–1707), Maria Theresa of Austria (1740–1780), Catherine II (the Great) of Russia (1762–1796). As the historian William Monter notes, though, double portraiture was also common in Europe during those centuries, with monarchs such as Mary, Queen of Scots, depicted alongside their husbands. William and Mary, of England, and Ferdinand and Isabella, of Spain, also appeared in this style.
The portrayal of women on modern currency has inherited aspects of all of these historical strains. Like Fulvia, Eva Perón, Argentina’s powerful First Lady from 1946 to 1952, is depicted on the Argentinian hundred-peso note. Golda Meir, Israel’s prime minister of five years, appeared on the Israeli ten-shekel note for a time, and Elizabeth II has appeared on currency throughout former British Commonwealth countries since 1953, albeit as head of state, rather than of government. Double portraiture has also been common enough: each of Australia’s notes, for example, feature a woman on one side and a man on the other (with the exception of the five, which has two women, one of them Elizabeth II).
The key difference between the monarchies of centuries ago and democracies today appears to be that in contemporary democracies the women depicted are more often featured for their cultural or historical significance than for any official role. For instance, the U.K. issued ten-pound notes with Jane Austen’s portrait, and Mexico depicts Frida Kahlo on one side of the five-hundred-peso note and her husband, the muralist Diego Rivera, on the other. In the United States, woman’s presence on currency has been entirely ceremonial. Three women have appeared on American money to date, and not once on a widely circulated note or coin: Martha Washington is depicted on silver certificates, worth one dollar, which were issued in 1886, 1891, and 1896. Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea both appear on dollar coins that, as anyone who has ever tried to spend one knows, do not circulate widely.
Placing Tubman, or another woman, alongside Alexander Hamilton, although not as significant as outright replacing a figure like Jackson, is a step in the right direction, of course, but it will also be a continuation of the American practice of relegating women to the outer reaches of currency, and it will echo the ancient systems in which a woman’s power, real or symbolic, stemmed from a man. Then again, maybe the Treasury Department is just waiting for Americans to rectify a larger imbalance, reserving the honor of a solo appearance for the country’s first female President—its own, democratic Elizabeth.
Sarah Archer is a writer and curator based in Philadelphia.