By Gina Barreca
The Hartford Courant.
America’s been discussing women’s influence on our nation’s history, destiny and character. And we managed to talk about women’s contributions for almost, oh, an entire quarter of an hour until the conversation veered back to men.
Makes you proud, doesn’t it?
The topic under discussion was, “Which women, from U.S. history, might appear on a piece of paper currency?” (Just one piece of paper currency, mind you, one single denomination.) Many men, however, became so distraught at hearing nothing about their accomplishments, for up to three minutes at a stretch, they tried to shut the whole thing down.
Men swiftly reclaimed the conversation with a fierce debate over the merits of the two men on the $20 bill and the $10 bill, respectively.
Not that there aren’t several good reasons for suggesting that Andrew “Trail of Tears” Jackson be ousted from the $20 instead of Alexander “Federalist Papers” Hamilton from the $10, I’m all for it. But what I noticed is that we’ve shoved the women out of the way so that Jackson and Hamilton can have center stage. The women of American history are now sitting in lawn chairs, drinking cold coffee and wondering whether their time for recognition will come.
But for a while there, we were having a fun, active, interesting conversation about which women might appear on paper money. We know it didn’t work out with the coins. Some of us still have the Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea coins sequestered somewhere in a separate compartment, probably in a plastic bag tucked into a drawer, because we’re afraid we’ll mistakenly circulate them as quarters.
Sure, they gave women coins, but they made the coins look as if they were worth one-fourth of their value. Are you shocked?
Yet it seemed as if the country, or the part of it that can make conversation, was having a lively and enthusiastic discussion about putting one woman on one piece of paper money, while still allowing the original owner to keep some real estate on the bill (Hamilton’s image will still be there somewhere). Even Jack Lew, U.S. Treasury secretary, cheered the idea and said merely that the woman had to be representative of American democracy and, by law, no longer living.
You’d think, given those parameters, there’d be a lot of names. You would think that a joyful noise would be made unto the government and that names of women who lived and died for the red, white and blue would be enough to keep us talking until 2020, when the new bill is due to be issued.
Not so much.
Perhaps it’s an unconscious fear of putting women into circulation or the uneasiness some men might feel putting Eleanor Roosevelt directly into their pants pocket.
Or maybe it’s the worry that once women start getting our faces on the money, we’ll want our full share of it, too.
I propose something entirely different: I believe that we should reinvigorate the term “funny money” and endow it with a literal meaning.
You want to represent democracy and embody a trait that’s fiercely defining of the American character? It’s got to be our sense of humor. Mark Twain argued that humor is “the natural friend of human rights and human liberties.”
I want currency with Mae West, Moms Mabley, Totie Fields, Gracie Allen, Dorothy Parker and Erma Bombeck on the bills.
Take Grover Cleveland off the $1,000 and put Gracie Allen on the grand.
Sophie Tucker deserves her own green because she told the truth about money: “From birth to age 18, a girl needs good parents. From 18 to 35, she needs good looks. From 35 to 55, she needs a good personality. From 55 on, she needs good cash.” Put Sophie on the sawbuck.
While not one of these women was among the Founding Fathers (I researched it), all of these women could be called impulsive. As defined by Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf in their new book “Spinglish,” the word “impulsive” is “a handy adjective for disparaging a female colleague who, if she were a man, would be applauded for her ability to make quick decisions.”
Sounds like the definition of an American leader to me.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut, a feminist scholar who has written eight books, and a columnist for the Hartford Courant.