U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew has asked the American people for feedback on what he calls "a new family of bills." I'm teaming up with Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) to urge the Secretary to embrace this plan: Create a $25 bill. Put Eleanor Roosevelt on it.
We understand that many outstanding women have been nominated to appear on our nation's paper currency. Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Susan B. Anthony -- they and many others made historic contributions to great causes like the abolition of slavery, civil rights and voting rights for women. In time, a place for each should be found, consistent with Secretary Lew's promise that "women will be a prominent part" of our future currency.
But Eleanor Roosevelt deserves to be honored first because no other American woman has had such an enormous positive impact on people's lives, both at home and around the world.
During a public service career that spanned more than 40 years, including 12 as our most active and influential First Lady, she fought for virtually every one of the social issues that mattered in her time, and still matter today. And she did it in the face of constant, scathing attacks from those who disdained her gender every bit as much as they opposed her causes.
A catalog of her accomplishments would take pages, but here are two that encapsulate the devotion and, yes, genius she brought to major issues.
During World War II, millions of men left their jobs to serve in uniform. To keep the economy running -- and especially to produce the guns, tanks, ships and planes to win the war -- women replaced them in the nation's factories. "Rosie the Riveter" was the bright, confident symbol of this tectonic shift.
There was a problem, though: Someone had to look after their children while they worked -- Rosie needed day care. That seems obvious now. But back then when stay-at-home moms were assumed to be the norm, no one, not even President Franklin Roosevelt, could see it.
Eleanor did. Even though she was already fighting for a host of other causes -- like demanding fair treatment for African-Americans in uniform -- she campaigned relentlessly for child care. At first, the resistance was shockingly stubborn. Finally one company, Kaiser, saw the logic of her case and opened a fully equipped child-care center at its shipyard in Washington State. Productivity immediately soared. After that everyone got it, and similar centers sprang up across the nation, followed by similar increases in output.
Eleanor had not only made a major contribution to the war effort, she had championed a concept that never existed before, accessible child care for working women. It is still not fully realized today, but thanks to her, millions of lives over the past seven decades have been made measurably better.
After WWII, Eleanor undertook many public service roles, the most historic of which was serving as a U.S. delegate to the United Nations and helping to write the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
At first, the assignment looked like Mission Impossible. The very idea of declaring that all people share certain basic rights was alien to many world leaders, especially the totalitarians. And Eleanor herself was dismissed as just a famous, well-meaning woman.
How they underestimated her! Armed not only with her passion on the issue, but her decades of experience in sharp-elbowed politics, she out-argued the skeptics and outmaneuvered the opponents. When the document she crafted was finally adopted by the UN, it was hailed as "a Magna Carta" for human rights.
President Truman called Eleanor Roosevelt the "First Lady of the World." Quite right. She leads the honor roll of great American women, a fact confirmed in a national poll conducted last summer after Secretary Lew asked for nominees. She richly deserves to be the first woman to grace our nation's paper currency, and she deserves to be on a new bill all her own.
Jennifer J. Raab is President of Hunter College, the largest campus of the City University of New York and home of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute, the New York home of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, 1908-1933.