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Exclusive: Concern Grows That Hamilton Euphoria Will Push Woman to Back of the $10 Bill

6 minute read
Sofia, the girl who wrote to Obama asking him to put a woman on U.S. currencyCourtesy of Kim B., Sofia's mother

A 9-year-old girl from Massachusetts made national news in 2014 with a hand-written letter to President Obama asking him to consider putting a woman on the face of American money. He announced that her plea was a “pretty good idea,” setting off a national conversation that eventually settled on putting a woman on the $10 bill.

Two years later, Sofia, whose last name has been withheld at the request of her family, says she is worried. Her mother recently told her that Treasury Secretary Jack Lew had been dropping public hints that he was looking to keep Alexander Hamilton in the center portrait on the front of the bill, and finding another place to put a woman. Sofia told her mother she thought that was unfair.

“I think that putting a woman on the back of the bill would make women seem less important,” Sofia told TIME on Tuesday. “You don’t pay a lot of attention to the back of the bill.”

Secretary Lew, who could announce his intentions any day now, has been signaling for months that he did not want to focus the discussion on “one square inch of space” on the front of just one bill. “We are looking at how do we take these buildings that are the back of our bills and bring them to life,” Lew said in an interview with Charlie Rose on March 30, in which he noted other bills like the $5 and the $20 will also be redesigned. “It is easy to come up with ideas about the Lincoln Memorial.”

At issue is the fate of Hamilton, a founding father Lew describes as a personal hero who served as the nation’s first Treasury Secretary and recently enjoyed pop culture celebrity as the star of a hit Broadway musical. In early 2015, the Treasury department sent a memo to the President proposing to put a woman as the portrait on the $10 bill, while recommending that the design also honor Hamilton’s legacy. Last summer, Lew launched a public campaign to ask citizens to send in recommendations for which woman should hold this new place of honor.

But in the ensuing months, Lew also changed his public description of the process, making clear that the center portrait is “not where we intended the focus to be.” In the interim, Hamilton supporters have made their presence known. In June of 2015, for instance, former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke called on the Treasury Department to do “everything within its power to defend the honor of Jack Lew’s most illustrious predecessor.”

The frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton, has also said she has talked to Lew about her desire to keep Hamilton’s portrait on the front of the bill. Lew has also become a vocal fan of the celebrated Broadway musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda, which celebrates the life of the founding father. “It was really tremendous,” he told New York magazine last August.

A Treasury official acknowledged during an interview with TIME Tuesday that the Secretary’s thinking evolved over the last 10 months through public input, but declined to indicate how. Asked for President Obama’s view of the controversy, the White House responded with a written statement describing the process as one controlled by the Treasury Department. “While this is an independent process, we have long supported this effort,” said White House spokeswoman Jennifer Friedman.

Sofia, however, is not the only one who worried about this shift. Barbara Ortiz Howard, the founder of Women on 20s, the grassroots movement urging the ousting of oft-maligned President Andrew Jackson from the currency, says keeping Hamilton in his place would undercut the entire message of bringing women to the currency. “Our first representation in over 100 years and this is going to be our representation?” Howard told TIME. “It’s akin to being on the back of the bus.”

New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat who has sponsored legislation to put a woman on the $20 bill, has also objected to a woman sharing space on the bill. “Whomever is chosen shouldn’t have to share the honor,” she said.

At least three additional historians and feminists, all of whom have been in contact with Treasury, suggested to TIME that this arrangement would be problematic. “You’re not going to fix gender inequality by putting a woman on the face of the 10, but boy will you emphasize gender inequality by putting women on the back,” says Jane Kamensky, the Director of the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at Harvard University.

If Lew decides to keep Hamilton’s portrait on the front of the $10 bill, the most likely place for a woman to be featured as the front portrait is the $20 bill, a scenario that has been endorsed by Clinton. The $100 bill, which features Benjamin Franklin, was recently redesigned, and Abraham Lincoln, whose face anchors the $5, is widely considered the most important President in U.S. History, making his replacement unlikely.

But a focus on replacing President Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill would likely delay the arrival of the first woman in a century front and center on U.S. paper money. Under the current schedule, Lew is expected to announce his decision any day now for the $10, if not other bills. But the new official design for the $10 bill will not be unveiled until 2020, with the new bill entering circulation years later.

The schedule for redesigning other currency is typically determined by an interagency panel. To date, that body has not discussed a timeline for redesigning the other bills. “The Advanced Counterfeit Deterrence Steering Committee has not made any recommendations regarding the $5 bill or the $20 bill,” a senior government official familiar with the process told TIME. “In fact, the $20 bill would not be issued prior to 2030.”

A Treasury official disputed that timeline in an interview with TIME, saying the advancements in technology as well as new counterfeit threats could accelerate the release of the new $20 before 2030, making the timing hard to predict.

Such speculation will do little to mollify Sofia, who will turn 11 this month. Over the last two years, she has been invited to the White House and has met with Treasury officials. But she still remembers the the laminated placemat she used as a younger child, featuring colorful block letters and images of the fronts of U.S. currency. “If you were to look at it, you wouldn’t really know what’s on the back of it,” she told TIME.

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