So women have waited 120 years and now, according to Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew, they should be happy to wait a few decades more. I'm referring to Lew's reversal this week to put a woman on the front of the 10 dollar bill. But not to worry, Lew says, because the wheels are in motion for a woman to grace the front of the 5 and 20 dollar bills. Except, according to a senior administration official I spoke with, the 20 dollar bill talk is just smoke and mirrors. "Jack Lew threw in the $5 and the $20 without approval from the committee that determines currency redesign," the official told me. The truth is, my source says, the only note approved at the moment for change is the 10 dollar bill. In fact, according to the administration official, the switch to the 20 dollar bill "incensed the Federal Reserve," because issuing a new 20 dollar bill was not even on the horizon, and the complexities are enormous. Redesigning a bill that is high volume, that is used in the vast majority of ATMs and will include a raised tactile feature, is not expected to be complete until 2030 at the very earliest. And indeed, according to this official, more likely 2035.
So, given the important symbolism of our currency, how it reflects our country's values and history, what was the reason for Lew's reversal? A Broadway musical. Or at least that is what it would seem.
First, some background. "Right now, the 10 dollar bill is undergoing a redesign," Lew said on June 17, 2015, "and I'm proud to announce today that the new 10 dollar bill will be the first bill in more than a century to feature the portrait of a woman." He reiterated the plans on December 30, 2015, when he said that the choice, which was to be announced by the end of the year, would be "someone who was a champion for our inclusive democracy."
But then his love of inclusive democracy apparently collided with his love of musical theater. And the latter appears to have won. After Lew saw Hamilton in 2015, he got a visit from the creator and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda. "The Secretary thanked Miranda for the ingenious way in which he has been able to tell Hamilton's story and ignite a renewed interest in one of our nation's founding fathers," a Treasury spokeswoman told The New York Times. "Secretary Lew also reiterated his commitment to continue to honor Alexander Hamilton on the 10 dollar bill." And Miranda tweeted of the meeting, "I talked to @USTreasury about this on Monday. Sec. Lew told me 'you're going to be very happy.' #wegetthejobdone."
It's unclear what exactly the job Miranda is talking about entails, but it appears to have led to this week's decision by Lew to keep Hamilton on the front and move to the back, as CNN put it, "a mural-style depiction of the women's suffrage movement." I'm guessing Rosa Parks is out, since surely not even this tone-deaf Secretary could actually move Rosa Parks to the back.
But, then again, she hasn't been the subject of a hit musical. Now I liked Hamilton as much as anybody. In fact, I loved it. I think Miranda takes a back seat to nobody in terms of his talent, creativity, storytelling, and musical genius. But it's also clear that women have taken a back seat for a few centuries. And now we have to wait a few decades more -- and, given that there will be many more officials with their own ideas before 2035, perhaps even much longer than that.
But that's not stopping Lew from spinning as fast as he can. "When we started this conversation not quite a year ago, it wasn't clear to me that millions of Americans were going to weigh in with their ideas," he told CNBC. "We're not just talking about one bill. We're talking about the $5, the $10, and the $20. We're not just talking about one picture on one bill. We're talking about using the front and the back of the bill to tell an exciting set of stories."
And with his decision, he's actually inadvertently replicating the "exciting set of stories" in which women have been pushed to the back of American history. Jane Kaminsky is the Pforzheimer Foundation Director of the Schlesinger Library, a research library specializing in the History of Women in America at Harvard University. "If the 20 dollar bill in 2030 is such a great solution, let's see Hamilton then and there," she told me. "Or if the back of the 10 dollar bill is such valuable real estate, let's honor him there. Historians recognize that there are many foundings and many founders of our democracy. They are not all, and have never all, been men. Surely we can make one female face the face of the nation on our currency, in the current decade."
Yes, Hamilton is a great musical, and much-deserving of its Pulitzer Prize this week. But Lew should honor the even more important role and struggle of women in fulfilling the promise of this country.