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Why Should it Matter if We Have Women on U.S. Currency?

by Megan Byrnes, Independent Museum Educator on

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Take a moment to open up your wallet, and look closely at the paper bills and coins contained within. What common features do you notice? There are the obvious ones like the portraits of presidents and other “Founding Fathers” of our country, as well as important buildings and mottoes such as “In God We Trust” and “E Pluribus Unim,” Latin for “Out of Many, One.” Our money is such a ubiquitous part of our daily lives that we hardly ever think about what is on it, only about whether we have enough of it to do what we want with it.

Now, imagine that you are a child growing up in this country. What does our currency say or not say to you? The recent social media movement to get American women represented on U.S. paper currency, “Women on 20s,” in time for the Centennial Anniversary of Women’s Suffrage, and the subsequent announcement by the Treasury Department to include a woman on a redesign of the $10 got me thinking about what all of this means in terms of museums, women’s history, and the importance of representation. Here are a few of the things that I’m taking away from this debate:

Representation Matters

Who or what we choose to place on our currency reflects what and whom we value as a country. In this case, what does it say about the U.S. when at least half of the nation’s population and their contributions aren’t reflected in its national symbols? Likewise, whose stories or objects we choose (or choose not) to feature in our museums speaks strongly about privileging certain perspectives and stories over others.

Now, I know some of you out there are saying that hard choices have to be made in exhibits sometimes due to lack of space, time, artifacts, etc. in museums and other educational venues. But imagine the profound impact on visitors, especially children, who never see the accomplishments of anyone like themselves presented in these spaces. As the expression goes, you can’t be what you can’t see.

A Half-Hearted Approach Can Sometimes Be Worse

Alternatively, a half-hearted approach at representation, similar to what Treasury Secretary Jack Lew is proposing, with a woman perhaps sharing the new $10 bill with Alexander Hamilton or a temporary reissue of the bill, can sometimes be worse. It can feel like pandering or tokenism, designed to pacify the public without engaging in a prolonged and meaningful discussion about the need to represent the accomplishments of women and other marginalized members of society in a significant and sustained institutional way.

The Power of Social Media

Another thing that I’m taking away from the currency debate is the power of social media to carve out a space for discussion and, in some cases, to put pressure on decision-makers for the inclusion of women and others in the museum. In my practice as a teacher and museum educator, I’ve often found that I’ve been able to leverage social media tools like blogs, Twitter, and Facebook, to promote and spark discussion of aspects of women’s history, African American, and American Indian history that may not be featured in textbooks or in the physical galleries.

Moreover, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the amount of genuine interest and support that such online activity can generate. In the case of the W20 or Women on 20s Campaign (womenon20s.org), the 10-week online poll, Facebook and Twitter campaign, and “virtual march” with an online petition to President Obama to feature a woman on the $20 had over 600,000 participants and encouraged people to learn about each nominee, no matter how obscure. Indeed, as columnist Gail Collins from The New York Times put it, the campaign was “like a national post-graduate course in women’s history.” How can we as museum professionals strategically use social media to expand the historical discussion?

“Fun” as the Entrance Point to Larger Issues

Finally, current events like the Women on 20s and #TheNew10 movements present us with a fun and accessible way to engage our visitors in some of the larger ideas and stories at our sites and show the importance of including women’s history. Questions like “What does our money say about our values as a country?” and “Who would you include on a bill and why?” can be interesting transitions into a deeper discussion.

One thing is for sure. I will continue to follow The New 10 campaign this summer at thenew10.treasury.gov and make my voice heard. I hope that you will do the same.

 – Megan Byrnes

Megan Byrnes has her Master of Arts in history from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, and currently works as a Program Educator at The Scott Family Amazeum in Northwest Arkansas.

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