Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire hasn’t let up on the fight to put abolitionist and political activist Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. And with the Biden Administration announcing its intention to make the long-awaited change, Tubman is poised to become the first woman ever to be printed on a bill. And after years of advocating for it, Shaheen is finally poised to take a victory lap.
“Our paper currency is how we measure value in our society, and the fact that we haven't had any women on our paper currency is a suggestion that we don't value the contributions of women in the way that we should,” Shaheen told NBC News’ Know Your Value. “I'm so excited to see the new administration say that they're going to make this a priority.”
The redesigned $20 bill was announced during President Obama’s second term, after the Treasury Department launched a poll to get public input on who should replace former President Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill.
“The decision to put Harriet Tubman on the new $20 bill was driven by thousands of responses we received from Americans young and old,” Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said in 2016. “I have been particularly struck by the many comments and reactions from children for whom Harriet Tubman is not just a historical figure, but a role model for leadership and participation in our democracy.”
As a conductor on the Underground Railroad, Tubman led enslaved people from the South to freedom in the Northern states and Canada. She also served as a soldier and spy for the Union Army during the Civil War.
The new bill was expected to go into circulation in 2020 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which granted some women the right to vote. (Crucially, many women of color, including Black women and Native women, were excluded from the women’s suffrage movement.)
But despite the fanfare and planning, the effort languished under the Trump Administration. Trump favored Jackson, a former Army general and slaveholder who is perhaps best known for his role in the forced relocation of Native Americans that robbed them of their land and resulted in thousands of deaths.
While Jackson’s image now graces one of the most-circulated bills in U.S. currency, as president he engaged in a bitter fight with the country’s national bank and actually warned against the use of paper money. As a candidate Trump called the Tubman plan “pure political correctness” and proposed printing the former slave-turned-abolitionist’s image on the $2 bill instead.
“Given the other actions of the Trump Administration, I was not surprised, I will be honest,” Shaheen said. “But that's why it's so exciting now to see that we have a president who recognizes that we need to reflect our society as a whole in everything we do… Having Harriet Tubman on the $20 shows that we value what she did, that we value women, that we value people of color. And I think for so many reasons, it's a very exciting signal to people throughout our country.”