Tori Fisher / Gavel Media

The Tubman Paradox

On Wednesday, April 20, 2016, the U.S. Department of Treasury announced that Harriet Tubman would appear on the front of the $20 note. A portrayal of The White House and a portrait of Andrew Jackson will be included on the reverse side. Though the plans for the redesign will be unveiled in the year of 2020 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, the new bill is expected to begin circulation in 2030. While this is in many respects a feat for women and women’s rights, it is in some sense problematic.

Because America’s currency is regularly redesigned in order to prevent counterfeiting, the opportunity for restyling and making aesthetic improvements of bank notes presents itself periodically. Most would not only argue that it is about time a woman be included in our currency, but also that Tubman is just as good as anyone to be put on the bill—and those people would be right.

Harriet Tubman was born into slavery in 1822, and spent her life fighting for the abolitionist cause and as an advocate for women’s rights. She was a remarkable and resourceful person, rescuing some 300 slaves in about nineteen expeditions through what has come to be known as the Underground Railroad and later working as a spy for the Union Army. In many ways, it is only fitting for the heroic Harriet Tubman to replace Andrew Jackson, a man whose fortune was generated at the heartless expense of American slaves.

However, while Tubman may very well deserve to be the new face of the $20 note, it does not necessarily mean she would have wanted to be. Feminista Jones, a writer for The Washington Post, points out that Harriet Tubman’s very legacy is “rooted in resisting the foundation of American capitalism.” Tubman did not admire things like free trade, the profit motive, and competition—some of the most defining aspects of the American economy—on the grounds that these features perpetuated inequality in our country. It is clear that she simply (and rightfully so) did not respect America’s economic system, a structure that repeatedly oppresses both women and people of color. In Tubman’s time, women were not allowed to own property or advance past certain points in their careers; today, this very same structural flaw exists in the form of unequal pay for women.

Historians agree that a country’s currency in itself is a public recognition of history. In some sense, the placement of Tubman on the front and booting Jackson to the back of the bill would more accurately represent two sides of an important period in history—that of abolition and also that of enslavement. In this way, the story of slavery and America’s journey toward emancipation would be told in a more complete manner through the inclusion of both Tubman and Jackson. In another sense, the placement of a black woman on American currency would only mask, and therefore exacerbate issues that still persist in our society today.

The truth of the matter is that placing Harriet Tubman on the front of any Federal Reserve note (even the most commonly utilized one) will make no practical difference in anyone’s life. Regardless of whose face appears on our country’s currency, women will remain inferior and will continue to earn considerably less than their male counterparts if no structural changes are made. Though the inclusion of Tubman memorializes her in an unparalleled and entirely deserved way, it merely muddies the waters and distracts from the issues that many women, especially those of color, still face today—issues that Tubman would have wanted to stand out and fight against.

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