White men on green paper. From the days of ancient Rome, when Julius Caesar and his successors filled the empire with coins bearing their likenesses, rulers and nations have used their money–both coins and the folding stuff–to define themselves. The unity of the U.K. is summed up in the face of the Queen. France, before the euro, decorated its currency with artists and philosophers. In the U.S., for more than a century, the pantheon of faces featured on paper bills has been limited to a small number of Caucasian guys: Presidents, plus a pair of founders.
That monotony appeared to give way last year when the Obama Administration announced plans to put a woman on the $10 bill, with a design to be unveiled in 2020, just in time for the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted voting rights to women. More than a century after Martha Washington’s limited appearance on a silver certificate, the boys’ club of George, Abe, Al, Andy, Ulysses and Benjamin was going co-ed.
But hang on. Nothing is simple in Washington. With the Treasury Department poised to announce details of the plan, a battle has broken out over who, when and where. And what seemed like a sure thing no longer looks likely. Surging support for the current $10-bill occupant and Broadway hotshot, Alexander Hamilton, has collided with the slow and secretive process for designing counterfeit-resistant money. And the Treasury Secretary, who sent a memo to the President in early 2015 suggesting a woman’s portrait on the $10 bill, has since begun publicly emphasizing redesigns for the back of the note, where a woman might be featured. In an interview with TIME, a Treasury Department official admits that some thinking has changed but won’t say what exactly. Many advocates fear that the deal is already done: no female portrait on the front of the $10 bill. And since Abe Lincoln will never be displaced from the $5 bill, no woman may arrive on the front of any currency until the Treasury sends redesigned $20 bills to the banks, which may not happen until 2030.
At the center of the pileup is Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew. Pressured by a powerful crew of Hamiltonians and beseeched by feminists, Lew’s hopes of pleasing everyone are sinking fast. The Secretary has been urging audiences to think beyond the “one square inch”–as he puts it–of front-and-center portraiture on each U.S. bill. Don’t get hung up on that symbolism, he says, when Uncle Sam’s greenbacks have room for so many images: slogans and buildings, seals and signatures, eagles and eyeballs. Instead of calling for a woman’s portrait, as he did last year, Lew now emphasizes that Hamilton is “one of my heroes.”
The thing is, symbols matter, as does their placement. To some leaders of the campaign for a woman’s portrait, a scene on the back of the bill is symbolic of second-class status. “Our first representation in over 100 years, and this is going to be our representation? It’s akin to being on the back of the bus,” says Barbara Ortiz Howard, the activist who got a viral public conversation going in 2015 by pushing for a woman on the $20 bill. In fact, when it comes to cash, symbolism is the whole point. Bills are essentially worthless scraps of paper–except that they symbolize a store of value to back them up. A Benjamin brings $100 of purchasing power, but take away a zero by decree and the same slip of paper would buy 90% less. Put the correct combination of paper scraps in the hands of a cashier and they might respond with food, shelter, a flat-screen TV or a Fitbit.
This symbolic potency may even be increasing as money becomes more abstract. When you can buy a house with a pen stroke, a car with your smartphone, a lifesaving surgery with the swipe of a plastic card, the symbol known as cash takes on the added heft of something tangible. Cash isn’t real–ask inflation-racked Venezuelans–but at least you can put it in your pocket.
So of course there is a fight over that square inch on the front of one bill. It’s a fight that appeared to be won early by the likes of Rosie Rios, whose title is Treasurer of the United States, and whose signature appears on every bill printed during her tenure. A fierce advocate for putting a woman on the currency, Rios began pushing for the change soon after she joined the Obama Administration in 2009. Her presentation to then Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner went so well, she told CNN afterward, that she left the room convinced the cause was sailing forward.
And in a way it was. The Advanced Counterfeit Deterrence Steering Committee–a multiagency team that operates in secret to recommend and oversee currency redesigns–indicated which bill was next in line for an update. The $10 note had proved most vulnerable to high-tech counterfeiters and desperately needed up-to-date security features such as three-dimensional security ribbons, multiple watermarks and color-changing inks. It became the chosen vehicle for an overhaul not for any slight against Hamilton but because his bill’s time was up.
Meanwhile, support for women on U.S. currency was growing. President Obama himself joined the debate in 2014 after reading a handwritten inquiry from a 9-year-old girl named Sofia in Massachusetts, who suggested a number of candidates for the honor, including Obama’s wife Michelle. Lew’s announcement in the summer of 2015 that the $10 bill would be “the first bill in more than a century to feature the portrait of a woman” seemed to seal the deal.
But then the story got complicated, thanks to the intrusion of a couple of ghosts, a hip-hop genius and former Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke. “Hamilton’s demotion is intended to make room to honor a deserving woman on the face of our currency. That’s a fine idea, but it shouldn’t come at Hamilton’s expense,” Bernanke wrote in a June op-ed. To the nation’s financial leaders, Hamilton was not just any old white guy; he was the most important, influential and visionary of the white guys. Asking a Treasury Secretary to demote Hamilton turned out to be a bit like asking a bird watcher to bury John James Audubon.
There have been dozens of men on various banknotes in the nation’s history, with forgotten names like Silas Wright and William Windom. But the current roster of guys on the front of our legal tender is pretty formidable. On the dollar is the Father of His Country, George Washington, for whom the capital is named. He’s not losing his spot anytime soon. The $5 and $50 bills belong to the two men most responsible for saving the Union when the U.S. appeared doomed to implode: Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant. Either one would be hard to knock off. On the $100 bill is Benjamin Franklin, who has been called “the original American”–a prototype of the self-made, entrepreneurial, clever and public-spirited man. The brilliant yet idiosyncratic Thomas Jefferson gets a token nod on the little-used $2 bill, and other Presidents make footnote appearances on various high-denomination bills that are never seen in circulation.
That leaves the $10 and $20 bills and the two hugely influential and polarizing men whose unquiet ghosts have never stopped battling for the American mind. Alexander Hamilton and Andrew Jackson, one an immigrant genius who basically invented the U.S. economy, the other a charismatic President who largely created the Democratic Party. The man of Wall Street and the man of Main Street. The reputations of both men have oscillated wildly since their deaths in 1804 and 1845, respectively.
But it just so happens that Hamilton’s stock has jumped to an all-time high at precisely the moment when he’s faced with losing his, well, face. His vision of the U.S. as a continent-spanning, industry-based global financial power has been vindicated by history. And at the same time, his singular biography (with its decidedly sexy undertones) captured the imagination of the hottest young artist on Broadway, Lin-Manuel Miranda. Just when the bureaucracy seemed ready to take the wigged capitalist down a peg, Miranda’s multiethnic hip-hop musical Hamilton burst out as New York City’s hottest ticket in decades.
Lew went to see the production in August and soon after dropped hints that changing the face of the $10 bill might not be as simple as one face or even one bill. The Secretary hosted the musical’s star at the department in March, where he told Miranda he would be “very happy” with the new note. “There are multiple bills that are going to be redesigned,” the Treasury Secretary told CBS. “One of the things that’s come out of this conversation is that very few people know what’s on the back of any of our bills.”
Lew’s talk of the back side was the beginning of his public backslide. “The notion that they might have shared real estate has struck a lot of scholars and a lot of cultural critics as disingenuous,” says historian and author Catherine Clinton, one of a group of scholars who met with Lew and Rios to discuss the matter. In that meeting, she sarcastically asked if a woman might appear on 80% of the bills to represent the pay gap women have historically faced in the U.S.
Harvard historian Jane Kamensky attended the same meeting. “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,” she says. Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire who drafted a bill to put a woman on the $20 note, agrees. “Whomever is chosen shouldn’t have to share the honor,” she says of the $10 bill.
To this, Hamilton’s defenders have pointed to a solution: Andrew Jackson, whose stock is trading at a steep discount these days, thanks to his slave-trading résumé and his record as a persecutor of Native Americans. No President has fewer friends at Treasury: Jackson’s fierce crusade against national banking guaranteed that. In fact, he so loathed the very concept of central banknotes that, if he came back from the dead, he might lead the charge to have his face removed from the $20 bill.
Deciding on the right woman for the $10 bill, either front or back, has been a struggle all its own. Formidable figures from Harriet Tubman and Eleanor Roosevelt to Susan B. Anthony and Rosa Parks have all been suggested, with public polls showing a nation divided. Complicating matters further (if that is possible) is the fact that among the women who care about this, there are surprising fault lines. Hillary Clinton and her replacement in the Senate, New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand, have lined up for keeping Hamilton on the $10 bill and putting someone like Tubman on the $20 bill. Exchanging a slave trader for an emancipationist heroine could send exactly the right message. But even if there were agreement on which woman might get stamped on the $20 bill, the problem is timing.
While Lew could announce his decision any day now, the new design of the $10 bill is scheduled for unveiling in 2020, with the bills hitting pocketbooks by 2026. “The Advanced Counterfeit Deterrence Steering Committee has not made any recommendations regarding the $5 bill or the $20 bill,” said a senior government official familiar with the process. That means, under a normal schedule, the U.S. would be left waiting until at least 2030 to see a Tubman $20 bill at the bank. (A Treasury official took issue with that timeline, saying advancements in technology as well as new and emerging threats could speed up the process.)
To many proponents of a change, any additional delay for a woman front and center is too long. And no proponent may have a louder voice in this fight than young Sofia of Massachusetts, who turns 11 in April. She was the one, after all, whose winsome, clear-eyed letter caught the President’s eye in 2014. Asked by TIME about the current fight over the $10 note, she did not hold back. “I think that putting a woman on the back of the bill would make women seem less important,” she said. “You don’t pay a lot of attention to the back of the bill.”
This appears in the April 25, 2016 issue of TIME.