If the efforts of a grassroots online movement, Women on 20s, and New Hampshire senator Jeanne Shaheen are successful, it won't be all about the Jacksons

By Diana Pearl
April 24, 2015 05:00 PM
PEOPLE.com Illustration By Debra Cartwright

If Hillary Clinton has her way, we’ll be seeing a woman in the White House soon.

And if Senator Jeanne Shaheen gets her way, we’ll be seeing a woman’s face on the $20 bill soon after.

Last week (fittingly, on Equal Pay Day), the senior senator from New Hampshire introduced a bill to place the face of a female from American history on the $20 bill. It’s an idea that’s been gaining traction online thanks to the work of a nonprofit group called Women on 20s.

While women have been featured on currency in the past, most notably the Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea dollar coins, the treasury has yet to feature a woman on the nation’s paper money – the country’s most widely used form of currency.

“Everybody sees who is on our bills,” Shaheen tells PEOPLE. “Recognizing that women have been a significant part of our history, and our traditions, just as men have, is important.”

The push to get a woman on the $20 bill began last year as a grassroots movement through Women on 20s. Thanks to social media, the cause gained buzz and attracted visitors to the group’s online vote to gauge which woman people would want to see on their money.

After a first round, the field was narrowed to four candidates: Underground Railroad leader Harriet Tubman; civil rights activist Rosa Parks; former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt; and the first modern female Chief of a Native nation, Wilma Mankiller.

In the final round of voting, happening now, more than 370,000 people have weighed in, and Woman on 20s is hoping the numbers will grow substantially more by the time the poll closes on Mother’s Day.

For now, though, the results won’t mean much: The bill still has to pass, and if it does, a citizens panel will make the final decision – it’s the same way Andrew Jackson, the current face of the $20 bill, was decided upon back in the 1920s.

As the movement’s name indicates, this isn’t just about getting a woman on any bill. Shaheen and Susan Stone, executive director of the Women on 20s organization, both say they want to make sure to go after a bill that’s widely circulated. As both the Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea coins failed to catch on (they haven’t been minted since 1999 and 2012, respectively), they want a piece of currency that’s guaranteed to be widely used.

In addition to the high demand for $20 bills, there’s also a symbolic aspect to the choice: The 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, was ratified in the year 1920.

Beyond that, the choice of the $20 is simply practical, Shaheen says.

For security purposes, money is redesigned and reissued every seven to ten years, and the $20 bill is overdue for this regular treatment. This means the cost of putting a woman on a $20 bill would be fairly minimal: The addition would just be an extra step in an already-planned redesign.

However, changing the face would obviously require booting Jackson, the nation’s seventh president. Originally selected for his military achievements and camaraderie with the average American, Jackson had a darker side that was not considered when making the choice: He was a key player in the passage of the Indian Removal Act, a piece of legislation that led to the Trail of Tears and the deaths of thousands of Native Americans. To boot, Jackson was (ironically) a staunch opponent of paper money.

The grassroots organizers are excited about Shaheen’s bill, but their work isn’t done yet. Congressional support can only help the Women on 20s movement, but it isn’t legally necessary. Stone says that this is a job that the Treasury secretary could do on its own. But if Congress passes the bill, it will surpass the Treasury secretary and go straight to the president.

“It would certainly be a great endorsement,” Stone says. “It would tell the president that this is something the whole country wants.”