Barbara Ortiz Howard was interviewed on CBS this morning, talking about her effort to put a female face on our money. The thrust of her argument distills down into simple math: there are a lot of women, so the money should reflect that. We are now in the realm of affirmative action, and this was a sitting duck for the effort. There is no criteria for being on currency, just death. It’s an honor, of course, and as an honor, should be taken seriously, though its hard to argue that the current slate of faces reflects any objective evaluation. Salmon P. Chase? Kennedy’s undistinguished three years in office didn’t earn him his place on the 5o cent piece; getting shot did.
I can’t work up much indignation over the campaign being played out on Howard’s website, Women on 20’s. Like all efforts to impose quotas and encourage group identification, the effort is devisive, and the site’s candidates to replace Andrew Jackson could serve as a primer on how affirmative action can have the perverse effect of diminishing the credibility and integrity of an accomplishment. Whatever one thinks about Jackson, he had a tremendous impact on the nation and its political culture, was a transformative national leader, and a historical figure of great significance. Quick: name the major legislative accomplishments of Patsy Mink, Shirley Chisolm and Barbara Jordan for example. Jackson towers over them in importance to the nation’s growth and long-term success. That doesn’t mean he has to be on a bill, but nobody will be able to argue again that being so honored means anything more than that a powerful constituency caught an accommodating Democratic President when he needed to bump a poll number.
The list is pretty thin. Most of the fifteen are “firsts,” and being a first isn’t itself proof of extraordinary talent or achievement.( Geraldine Ferraro was the first woman to be on a national presidential ticket, for example.) Most of the rest are symbols of feminist issues, like birth control (Margaret Sanger), women’s suffrage (Elizabeth Cady Standon, Alice Paul, Susan B. Anthony), and feminism itself (Betty Friedan). For those that remain, their gender is the only feature that would elevate their significance above that of many equally or more qualified men. Howard also didn’t do her homework. Where, for example, is Abigail Adams?
The qualified candidates who wouldn’t degrade the honor of being on a bill are Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, and Harriet Tubman. But if the self-selected minority who are voting on Hoffman’s site decide that Patsy Mink is the most deserving, I’m sure the President will boot Andy.
One thing is certain: Jackson wouldn’t care. It was always a little strange to have the portrait of the single President who most distrusted banks on a bank-note.