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'We need to reflect our society as a whole': Is Harriet Tubman finally headed for the $20 bill?

Sen. Shaheen’s fight to get Tubman on the $20 bill is paying off. “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,” she told NBC News' Know Your Value.
Image: Anti-slavery crusader Harriet Tubman is seen in a picture from the Library of Congress
Anti-slavery crusader Harriet Tubman between 1860 and 1870.H.B. Lindsley / Library of Congress via Reuters file

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.”

Image: Senate Armed Services Nomination hearing for Braithwaite, Anderson and Brown in Washington, DC
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen,D-N.H., during a hearing on Capitol Hill on May 7, 2020.Kevin Dietsch / Pool via Reuters

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.”

The Democratic senator from New Hampshire had previously criticized the “needless foot-dragging” as “unacceptable,” charging that the Trump administration’s delay set “an unmistakable message to women and girls, and communities of color, who were promised they’d see Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill.”

Sen. Shaheen introduced “The Harriet Tubman Tribute Act” in 2015, directing the Treasury Department to print Tubman’s image on all $20 bills beginning in 2021 — then re-introduced the bill in 2019, after demanding and failing to receive a detailed timeline from Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin the year prior. Before Tubman’s likeness was decided on, Shaheen introduced a bill in 2015 requiring the Treasury Department to “convene a panel of citizens” to discuss supporting the “Women on 20’s” campaign, in which nearly half a million participants voted on which of the campaign’s chosen 15 women they’d like to see replace Jackson on the $20. Alongside Tubman, the finalists included civil rights icon Rosa Parks, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and Wilma Mankiller, the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation.

Last month, the White House announced that the Treasury Department is taking steps to restart the effort to put Tubman on the front of the $20 bill. America's currency should "reflect the history and diversity of our country, and Harriet Tubman's image gracing the new $20 note would certainly reflect that,” Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters.

Right now, there is only one woman featured on a piece of U.S. currency that’s currently in circulation: Sacagawea, the Native American who helped Lewis and Clark explore the Louisiana Territory, is depicted on the rarely-used dollar coin. Susan B. Anthony, a leader in the women's suffrage movement, had been featured on the dollar coin until 1981. Disability rights advocate Helen Keller was depicted on the reverse side of the 2003 Alabama quarter.

“I think this is a wonderful symbol and a recognition that we value the contributions of women, we value the contributions of people like Harriet Tubman, who made such a huge difference during the Civil War and tried to rescue slaves,” Shaheen said. “Making sure that we recognize people like Harriet Tubman, in addition to presidents and other people who have served this country, is really important.”