Real-Life Women Last Appeared on U.S. Paper Money 100 Years Ago; Black People Never Have

The U.S. Treasury Department said on April 20 that Harriet Tubman, Marian Anderson and suffragists will appear on redesigned $20, $10 and $5 bills, joining the short list of women who have appeared, including Martha Washington and Pocahontas. The Smithsonian National Museum of American History

Abolitionist Harriet Tubman, barrier-breaking opera singer Marian Anderson and female suffragists won't be the first real-life women to appear on major United States paper currency, but they will be the first in more than a century.

Pocahontas once graced the back of the national $20 bill in an image, based on a painting now in the Capitol Rotunda and on a note first issued in the 1865, that portrayed her baptism. She appears dressed in a gown and kneeling on a podium before a priest, flanked by settlers on one side and Native Americans on the other.

Martha Washington, the United States's initial first lady, appeared on U.S. $1 silver certificates in 1886, 1891 and 1896.

The U.S. Department of the Treasury announced on Wednesday that Tubman will replace Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill. Other women will appear on the backs of the redesigned $5 and $10 bills. As the Pocahontas and Martha Washington notes went out of circulation in the late 1800s, and likely disappeared for good by the 1920s, it has taken more than a century for historical female figures to return to prominent positions on U.S. money.

"This is the first time that Americans have had a big national conversation about what our banknotes looks like," says Ellen Feingold, curator of the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. "The fact that women's history is being included and honored on American banknotes is a huge shift, a huge moment."

During a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew said women "for too long have been absent from our currency."

Lew said Jackson will now appear on the reverse side of the $20 bill. Alexander Hamilton will remain on the front of the $10 bill, but the updated reverse side "will honor the story and the heroes of the women's suffrage movement against the backdrop for the treasury building," where they demonstrated for the right to vote in 1913, Lew said.

The front of the $5 bill will continue to depict Abraham Lincoln, while the updated reverse side will depict events at the Lincoln Memorial, including Anderson's famous 1939 performance there. Eleanor Roosevelt helped organize the event after the Daughters of the American Revolution prohibited Anderson from performing there because of her race. Later, Anderson became the first African-American to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. It is not immediately clear how prominent the depiction of Anderson in the image will be. Another new image on the reverse side of the $5 bill will feature Martin Luther King, Jr.'s 1963 appearance at the Lincoln Memorial, during which he gave his "I Have A Dream" speech.

A bank note first introduced in 1865 featured the baptism of Pocahontas. Martha Washington is the only historical female figure to appear on a new U.S. banknote since then. The Smithsonian's National Museum of American History

Feingold was part of a team of historians and currency experts that met with the Treasury Department in August to offer insights on how women have previously appeared on currency, and how others might appear in the future. She says the names they discussed included Rosa Parks, Roosevelt and Tubman.

"In the U.S. we have had a few—though very few—but a few examples of historic women appearing on coins and banknotes," she says. Pocahontas and Washington were first, and they were the only ones to appear on paper notes. In recent decades, Susan B. Anthony, Sacagawea and other first ladies have appeared on coins in limited circulation.

More often, Feingold says, women appeared as allegorical forms, such as depicting liberty, justice, peace and victory.

To depict a female social activist such as Tubman on paper currency "is unprecedented in U.S. history," Feingold says. Female activists are on money elsewhere: Kate Sheppard in New Zealand, Caroline Chisholm in Australia and Elizabeth Fry in the United Kingdom. Feingold says women first appeared on coins around the third-century B.C.E.

Not only is the upcoming monetary change significant because of its inclusion of women, Feingold says, but also because U.S. currency rarely goes through such design changes.

"The way in which our banknotes look has not changed very much since the late 1920s," she says. The new bills will also feature tactile elements for people who are visually impaired and enhanced security and anti-counterfeiting measures.

The change is also a major moment for American black history; Tubman, Anderson and King will be the first African-Americans—male or female—to appear on U.S. federal currency. Feingold says non-federal currency, such as that circulated by the Confederate States of America, depicted African-Americans, but only as slaves.

Harriet Tubman, Marian Anderson and Martin Luther King, Jr. will be the first African Americans to appear on U.S. federal currency. Previously, the Confederate States of America portrayed African Americans on its money as slaves. The Smithsonian National Museum of American History

An exhibition at the American History museum, "Women on Money," opened in March. An example of one of those Confederate notes is also on display at the museum.

The Treasury Department said the unveiling of the new designs will coincide with the centennial of women's suffrage in 2020. However, The New York Times reported that the updated notes will not go into wide circulation until the 2030s. The update to the $10 note is scheduled first, but the Treasury Department said it could not offer a more specific timeline.

Lew had previously said the Department would put a woman on the front of the $10 bill, a decision that some have speculated possibly changed because of the recent renewed popularity of Hamilton, the subject of the acclaimed Broadway musical that bears his name. When asked about the decision to leave Hamilton on the front of the $10, Lew did not mention the musical.

During the conference call, Rosie Rios, treasurer of the U.S., said today is "a day that is going to be remembered for many generations to come."

Correction: This article previously incorrectly stated that a Confederate banknote is on display in the "Women on Money" exhibition at the Smithsonian'​s National Museum of American History. That banknote is part of a different exhibition.