7 Women Who Rocked Currency
It’s no longer all about the Hamiltons, baby. The U.S. Treasury is looking for a few good women to replace Alexander Hamilton on the front of the $10 bill, which is up for a redesign that’s likely to enter circulation around 2020. (Hamilton fans may be encouraged by the fact that he’s not going away—the forefather of the U.S. Treasury may appear elsewhere on the $10 bill, or on another piece of currency.)
The call for a female face on the $10 follows a growing movement to get a lady other than Lady Liberty on U.S. paper currency. The popular online campaign Women on 20s circulated an online petition in 2015 to oust Andrew Jackson from the $20 and replace him with abolitionist Harriet Tubman in time for the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in America in 2020. But the Treasury says the $10 bill was first in line for a redesign, a move planned back in 2013.
Now that modern-day Americans are likely to soon see a female face on their paper money, it seems like a historic moment. But there have been many women on currency, U.S. or otherwise, before it. Here are a few women of (bank)note who made history.
1. Fulvia Flacca Bambula
The calculating and politically shrewd third wife of Mark Antony—she basically ran things when he was off gallivanting with Cleopatra (a.k.a. solidifying the Eastern part of the Roman Empire) after Julius Caesar’s assassination—is widely regarded as the first non-royal to appear on any kind of currency. Her face was on a Roman coin in the 40s BC, depicted on it as a goddess of victory for leading her husband’s forces in a civil war in Rome against his rival, Octavian. Also at the time, it was common to put likenesses of rulers’ family members on coins.
2. Cleopatra VII
The legendary Queen of Egypt is the first undeniable female ruler to appear on a coin. A bronze Egyptian coin dating back to 48 BC depicts the ruler with her son and co-ruler, Ptolemy Caesar (a.k.a. Caesarion). She also appeared on a silver coin from 32 BC with then-husband Mark Antony. One of those coins surfaced in 2007 and kind of upended the universe—the coin depicted the “beautiful” Cleopatra as more troll-like than historians and Hollywood had us believing. That notwithstanding, Cleopatra unwittingly launched the trend of putting female leaders—queens, presidents, prime ministers, and other political leaders—on currency.
3. Elizabeth I
Henry VIII left his daughters Mary I and Elizabeth I a rough economy when they inherited the throne in 1553 and 1558, respectively. The value of British coin was in the toilet after the king’s extravagance forced him to use copper to mint them. But the two queens deftly turned it around, with Mary restoring gold purity standards and Elizabeth restoring silver and removing the old coins from circulation. And as you would expect from monarchs, they stamped the coins with their own faces—Mary occasionally with her husband, and Elizabeth by herself. Several other female monarchs followed suit as the sole human feature on the coin, like Anne, Maria Theresa of Austria, and Catherine II of Russia.
The Native American woman who forged a bond with some of the earliest European settlers in Virginia in the 17th century was the first woman ever to be featured on U.S. currency. She was part of a tableau on the $20 bank note in 1865 (the bottom part of the image above).
5. Martha Washington
America’s first First Lady was the first woman to appear on the front of U.S. paper money in portrait form. Her likeness graced the $1 silver certificate from 1886 to 1896. She was thrown to the back of the certificate in 1896, canned entirely in 1899, and was eventually replaced by her husband, George, whose closed mouth smirk remains on today’s $1 bill.
6. Susan B. Anthony
The pioneer of American women’s suffrage was the first woman to have her likeness imprinted on a circulating coin, in a series that ran from 1979 to 1981. (The first woman ever to grace a U.S. commemorative coin was Queen Isabella of Spain in 1893 for the Columbian Exposition. Who pushed for that? Susan B. Anthony, of course.) Today, there are two women on circulating coins—Helen Keller’s likeness graces the back of the Alabama quarter (issued in 2003) and Sacagawea headlines the dollar coin (issued in 1999).
7. Queen Elizabeth II
QEII definitely wins the popularity contest in the currency world. She holds the Guinness Book of World Records title for most currencies featuring the same individual, appearing on currency in 35 different countries since she ascended the throne in 1953. That includes the UK, Canada, New Zealand, Jamaica and Australia, among others. In fact, one can see her aging over the years just by looking at the various bills with her face on them. Queen Victoria comes in a distant second place, appearing on coinage in 21 countries. King George V comes in third with his face on 19.
BONUS: The Newest Members of the “Curren-She” Club
This exclusive (unofficial) club of women who have appeared on currency counts members by the dozens, and already includes the likes (in more modern times) of Syria’s Queen Zenobia, former Philippines President Corazon Aquino, Eva Peron of Argentina, Frida Kahlo of Mexico, and former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. Recent additions to the club have been women who are known more for their contributions outside of the political arena—the UK plans to add Jane Austen to the £10 note in 2017, Greta Garbo, Birgit Nilsson and Astrid Lindgren are set to appear this year on the Swedish 100 krona, 500 krona, and 20 krona respectively, and Israel added poets Rachel Bluwstein and Leah Goldberg to the 20 shekel note and the 100 shekel note, respectively.
As for who will join this club from the United States in 2020, there are really only two criteria: the woman featured has to be deceased (that’s per tradition dating back to the Revolution, and now federal law), and she has to “be iconic and have made a significant contribution to—or impact on—protecting the freedoms on which our nation was founded.”