Will Harriet Tubman grace $20 bills? Why some groups don't want that.

A group wants to replace Andrew Jackson's portrait with the image of Harriet Tubman. Would this be a recognition of African-American achievement or 'hush money' papering over a lack of progress? 

H. Seymour Squyer
Harriet Tubman, circa 1885.

If a group of pro-women campaigners has its way, by 2020, when Americans withdraw cash from an ATM, it will be Harriet Tubman's portrait gracing the $20 bill, not Andrew Jackson's.

Women On 20s, a group that wants to boot Jackson from the bill, has tallied the online votes and declared Tubman the successor. But while advocates hail the choice as a move forward for women and for African-Americans, the campaign has, unexpectedly, come under fire by critics who call the move superficial rather than substantive.

Replacing Jackson with Tubman isn't progress, said The Root writer Kirsten West Savali in an article entitled "Why we should keep Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks off the $20 bill," "It’s hush money."

Tubman, an abolitionist best known for freeing hundreds of slaves through her role as a "conductor" for the Underground Railroad, beat out three other candidates: former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, civil rights activist Rosa Parks, and the first woman elected chief of a Native American tribe, Wilma Mankiller.

"We believe this simple, symbolic, and long-overdue change could be an important stepping stone for other initiatives promoting gender equality," the group says on its website. "Our money does say something about us, about what we value."

Jackson, the nation's seventh president, has come under scrutiny in recent years. Once celebrated for his role in the Battle of Orleans, Jackson is perhaps now better known for his crushing policy toward Native Americans and his ownership of slaves. His Indian Removal Act of 1830 relocated several Native American tribes.

"Thousands died as they were forced from their homes and marched across the country in a brutal series of events that came to be known as The Trail of Tears," The Christian Science Monitor reported.

Advocates, including President Obama, say replacing Jackson's portrait with a woman's signals a significant step forward for women.

"Last week, a young girl wrote to me to ask why aren't there any women on our currency," President Obama said in a July speech in Kansas City, according to the Washington Post. "And then she gave me a long list of possible women to put on our dollar bills and quarters and stuff – which I thought was a pretty good idea."

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) of New Hampshire, who has introduced a bill asking the Treasury Department to consider the issue of putting a woman's face on American currency, has been a major advocate of the campaign.

"I think there are, going back to the revolution, lots of women whose contributions have been significant and have not gotten the same kind of attention," Senator Shaheen told the Washington Post.

Even TV talk show host Ellen DeGeneres has weighed in, saying "It's about darn time."

But the campaign has sparked a vigorous counter-campaign, with petitions to keep Andrew Jackson on the currency, editorials defending Jackson's contribution to history and his place on the bill, even opposition from black news and culture site The Root.

"Specifically, there is something both distasteful and ironic about putting a black woman’s face on the most frequently counterfeited and most commonly traded dollar bill in this country," writes Savali for The Root. "Haven’t we been commodified and trafficked enough? Slapping a black female face, one of our radical icons, on a $20 bill as if it’s some attainment of the American dream would be adding insult to injury."

She pointed out that African-American women earn on average 64 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men and that nearly half of all single African-American women have zero or negative wealth, and their median wealth is $100 – compared with just over $41,000 for single white American women.

Putting Harriet Tubman on a $20 bill doesn't solve anything, Savali argued.

But Women On 20s Executive Director Susan Ades Stone told the Washington Post the move would elevate a notable African-American woman's achievements.

“Our paper bills are like pocket monuments to great figures in our history."

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