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Harriet Tubman, And The Price Of American Sexism

This image shows Harriet Tubman, between 1860 and 1875. A Treasury official said on April 20, 2016, that Secretary Jacob Lew has decided to put Tubman on the $20 bill, making her the first woman on U.S. paper currency in 100 years. (H.B. Lindsley/Library of Congress via AP)
This image shows Harriet Tubman, between 1860 and 1875. A Treasury official said on April 20, 2016, that Secretary Jacob Lew has decided to put Tubman on the $20 bill, making her the first woman on U.S. paper currency in 100 years. (H.B. Lindsley/Library of Congress via AP)
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So, just as cash is becoming obsolete, we’re now going to put a woman on the $20 bill. Hey, I guess it’s better than putting her on a pedestal.

This has been something of a saga. The U.S. Treasury Department was originally planning to off Alexander Hamilton from the $10 bill. But thanks to the insanely popular eponymous musical that apparently has more fans than folks who have actually seen it, Hamilton held in there. Instead, Harriet Tubman, abolitionist and union spy, will grace the $20 bill. Andrew Jackson — the man responsible for the ignoble Trail of Tears and a slaveholder to boot — will in turn get bumped to the back of the bill, making him and Tubman uncomfortable roomies, to say the least.

It felt back then like women were being appeased. Today’s changes to our currency have the same placating feel as well.

And Hamilton too will be getting new roommates. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew also says the back of the tenner will host a variety of women, including Lucretia Mott, Alice Paul and Sojourner Truth. All of this reminds me, oddly, of the statues along Back Bay’s Commonwealth Mall. You may remember: Struck by the fact that public artworks on the Mall, the Public Garden and the Common all feature men, a group began pushing for a woman’s statue. Unable to decide on one woman, we ended up in 2003 with three women of history — Abigail Adams, Lucy Stone and Phillis Wheatley. They're portrayed lounging around in a circle, looking for all the world like they’re gossiping about the indiscretions of the neighbors next door. Mind you, any one of these women — and many others too — would have deserved her own statue. But instead we put them all in one spot, called it the Boston Women’s Memorial, and just like that, our consciences were salved. The rest of the city, I guess, remains the Boston Men’s Memorial.

It felt back then like women were being appeased. Today’s changes to our currency have the same placating feel as well. By 2020 — the year the new bills should come out — it’s a safe bet that smartphones and debit cards will have largely replaced cash. The Tubman Twenties will probably get as much use as the old Susan B. Anthony dollar coins. The victory will be Pyrrhic.

Currency travails notwithstanding, there’s no question that women have made much progress since the 1920 Amendment that granted them suffrage. Back then, women rarely got any sort of higher education. Today, more women than men are college grads (indeed, the crisis on that front is now what happens to the men left behind). It once was the case as well that employment ads were neatly divided into “Jobs for Men” and “Jobs for Women.” Those distinctions are long gone. “A woman’s place is in the House,” runs the bumper sticker, “…and the Senate.” Add to that soon the White House, as the Democratic party stands poised to nominate a woman for president, a signal and long overdue moment.

Yet that campaign itself has exposed the deep sexism that far too often runs through our veins. When Bernie Sanders shouts, he’s persuasive; when Clinton does, she’s shrill. A Sanders surrogate at a rally recently saw fit to call Clinton a “whore.” And the exit polls from this week’s New York primary showed some odd results too. Hillary won among single women, married women and married men. The one group she lost to? Single men — the "Bernie Bros."

The Tubman Twenties will probably get as much use as the old Susan B. Anthony dollar coins. The victory will be Pyrrhic.

The rhetoric of that campaign has grown coarse of late, but when issues are discussed, one that Clinton focuses on is the disparity between compensation paid to men and to women. It’s illegal, of course — President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act in 1963 — but it persists nevertheless. And it’s a reflection of the way women still have a tough time breaking through any number of ceilings, be they membership on corporate boards, partnerships in venture capital firms or senior management of big law firms.

And even in our personal lives things are still askew. It was once a near-tenet of the women’s movement that straight women should stop adopting their husband’s last name. Yet over the last 30 years, the numbers haven’t changed much: in more than four out of five marriages, the Misses become Mesdames. And the children that result from those happy unions? Almost all of them bear their father’s last name as well.

Well, at least those kids will in four years get to see a woman grace the front of the $20 bill — if such a bill can be found. At the same time and much more meaningfully, they may also get to see another woman running for her second term.

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Tom Keane Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Tom Keane is a Boston-based writer.

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