When the Women on 20s campaign launched last spring, promoting the representation of a prominent female figure on the U.S. $20 bill - Harriet Tubman being a leading selection - Rutgers Law scholars Ruth Anne Robbins and Genevieve Tung were two of 600,000 passionate about the issue.But two Rutgers Law researchers don’t just vote online and wonder what happens, they track media, question facts, issue Freedom of Information Act requests to the U.S. Treasury, take multiple trips to the National Archives, and publish everything they discover.
Last month, Robbins, a clinical professor of law, and Tung, a law librarian, published the Op-Ed “95 Years of Waiting,” on Women You Should Know, but say they have much more scholarship underway addressing women’s absence from U.S. currency. The larger article they are writing now focuses on the flawed government process that has been in place since the late 1860’s to determine whose portrait appears on paper money.
“Who and what appears on our money matters to people as part of our national iconography,” says Robbins. “And the lack of authentic citizen voice in the decision-making that goes into something as important as the iconography of our currency. One sole man makes this determination: the Secretary of the Treasury. The only limitation is that the portrait must be of someone no longer living.”
What set the two off to the National Archives in the first place was the U.S. Treasury Department’s response to one simple question: why was Andrew Jackson on the $20 anyway?
“The answer that came back was that there were no records from the 1929 decision. That struck me as odd,” says Robbins. “Government agencies keep records. I was surprised that something like our currency design was not recorded somewhere.”
The Rutgers Law researchers issued a Freedom of Information Act request to the Treasury on the last major re-design of all American currency in 1929. Not satisfied with the results that the request yielded, they then decided to conduct comprehensive research at the National Archives.
“Indeed, there are records that discuss the choice to include Jackson on the money,” explains Robbins. “It was a combination of factors, most of them rather mundane. The people selected in 1929 for the brand new smaller-size bills we know today came from portraits already in stock from prior printings, that represented different eras, and that had men who looked different enough from each other that their visages could help holders tell the difference among the bills.”
But what Tung and Robbins discovered again and again on the currency design issue were examples of decisions made without public input, designs chosen to suit individual tastes, and officials’ indifference to questions and suggestions from citizens.
“The President has no formal role in the process. Congress cannot weigh in absent legislation. Thus, the procedure as it stands is neither accountable nor transparent to the American public,” explains Robbins. “And the American public cares about this process—all of the articles we have seen on the topic of portraiture on the $10 and $20 in the past year attest to that as do the tweets, the Facebook posts, and the letters that go back 95 years.”
The process for currency differs significantly from the process used to select what images appear on coins. According to Tung, the Secretary of Treasury has more limited discretion because Congress has chosen to repeatedly legislate in this area and has established a Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee. Thanks to these measures, U.S. coins have more portraits of women and other representations of American diversity.
She added, “The reason we have not seen a woman on the money is the same reason why we have not had a person of color on the paper currency and is also the same reason we do not have a system that allows the visually-impaired to easily differentiate among bills: because no Secretary of the Treasury has deemed it a priority.”
While the Treasury Department has issued a Twitter campaign utilizing the #TheNew10, which has allegedly generated millions of tweets, Robbins says social media alone isn’t a valid method for collecting input from U.S. citizens on our country’s most widely circulated symbol.
Their forthcoming article will serve as a call to action for Congress to change the decision-making process to one that includes the same transparency and accountability used in other arenas of government that involve iconography.
“We hope that we can inspire others to write on this topic and we also hope that people in positions to make the changes necessary will be part of the readership.”