Hit Broadway Musical May Keep Hamilton on $10 Bill, Dashing Hopes for Female Replacement

Saturday, April 16, 2016
Crowds pour into theater to see "Hamilton" (photo: Getty Images)




By Jackie Calmes, New York Times


WASHINGTON — For more than 100 years, women have waited for a portrait of someone of their sex at the center of a paper note, a wait that appeared to be ending when Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew announced 10 months ago that he would choose a woman for a new $10 bill in development.


But then the fame of a striving immigrant from the West Indies named Alexander Hamilton achieved unlikely heights in the lights on Broadway more than 200 years after his untimely death. The first Treasury secretary, in the 18th century, Hamilton had become a 21st-century rap-musical phenomenon, and a small coterie of history-minded Hamiltonians swelled by millions to include not just well-heeled adults shelling out up to thousands of dollars a ticket but teenagers rapping Hamilton’s life story at the dinner table.


Now Lew is leaning toward keeping Hamilton at the center of the $10 note and placing a vignette of female historical figures on the flip side.


But, in keeping with his announcement last June, Lew is expected to simultaneously announce both that a woman will be front and center on the more numerous $20 notes — displacing the (currently) less popular Andrew Jackson — and also that one or more women will be on the $5 bill as well. Lew’s own public hints in recent weeks have pointed in this direction.


“We’re not talking just about one bill,” Lew said Thursday on CNBC. “We’re talking about the $5, the $10 and the $20.” And last month he carefully avoided saying a woman’s portrait would be at the center of the $10 bill, telling Charlie Rose in an interview on PBS, “We are going to put a woman on the face of our currency.”


For disappointed women, there could be one consolation: “Hamilton” may have saved Hamilton, but the chances of “Andrew Jackson — The Musical” are slender indeed. Still, it would be years before the $20 and $5 bills can be redone, a time lag that will infuriate many eager to see a woman honored.


“If Jack Lew keeps Hamilton on the front, then I don’t think we’ll ever see a woman on the front,” said Shelley Zalis, founder of the Girls Lounge, a networking organization for female corporate leaders. “Who knows if that will ever be a reality?”


The $20 and $5 bills are next in the government’s process of redesigning currency to deter increasingly sophisticated counterfeiters, and also to add new tactile features for identification by the visually impaired. Given the complexity of the process, new versions would probably not enter circulation before the 2030s, government officials say.


Treasury and White House officials, including Lew, declined to comment for the record. But already speculation about the Treasury secretary’s decision has angered some of the women who have awaited it most intently, an online group called Women on 20s.


On Friday, its leaders issued a news release excoriating Lew: “Women on 20s considers it deeply disturbing that Secretary Lew would renege on his public commitment to prominently feature a single woman on the next new bill.”


“With this decision, Secretary Lew is proving, once again, that in America it’s still a man’s world,” they added. “It was a chorus of mostly men who implored him to keep Hamilton on the $10, and he listened.”


Indeed, it was Lew’s listening — not just to Hamiltonians, but to the unanticipated millions of Americans who responded to his June invitation to recommend a woman for the currency — that accounts for his missing his self-imposed December deadline. He was hearing a cacophony of conflicting opinions, mainly pitting some women’s groups against Hamiltonians.


Now leading the Hamiltonians, in effect, was Lin-Manuel Miranda, the star and creator of “Hamilton,” who, in the words of the musical’s Hamilton, was not throwing away his shot. He pressed Lew to keep Hamilton on the $10 bill when the Treasury secretary and his wife saw the musical. Miranda recently said on Twitter that Lew indicated “Ham’s fans” would be happy with the ultimate decision.


Lew also listened to the outspoken leaders of Women on 20s, who were invited to his event last June. Yet it was perhaps never possible that he could satisfy them.


With online petitions and efforts on social media, the group’s leaders — the founder, Barbara Ortiz Howard, and the executive director, Susan Ades Stone — campaigned to put a woman not on the $10 bill but on the more numerous $20, the common currency of the ubiquitous automated teller machines. Their activism, combined with Hamilton’s newly untouchable status, eventually led Lew to consider a not-so-Solomonic decision to leave Hamilton on the face of the $10 and have a woman oust Jackson from the $20.


But Women on 20s would not consider that a victory, their Friday statement made clear, since the new $20 would be years away. They wanted Lew to redesign the $20 ahead of the $10, or concurrent with it.


That, however, was something Lew could not do.


The modern process for updating currency dates to the 1990s. Notes get a makeover one at a time, the sequence decided by a panel representing the Treasury Department, Secret Service, Federal Reserve and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, based on confidential security concerns. In late 2012, the panel designated the $10 note as next.


Unlike Women on 20s, the members of the Girls Lounge would be happy with a woman’s portrait on the $10 bill, as long as she was on the front in Hamilton’s place. “It’s not about Hamilton,” Zalis said. “It’s about putting a woman on the front.”


Now both women’s groups are poised to protest.


All of this suggests a public relations disaster ahead for Lew — and for what was supposed to be a simple, feel-good initiative.


He began last summer thinking he would be simply choosing a woman for the center of the $10 bill, with help from the public through social media, town-hall-style meetings and random encounters. Yet he had problems from the start.


Lew anticipated that Hamilton’s fans would be upset, so he promised that Hamilton would remain somewhere on the $10. But that provoked women and some men to object on social media that women should not have to share space with any man. Then “Hamilton” opened; neither Lew nor anyone else could have anticipated its rock-star popularity.


And all this controversy comes before Americans even learn the identity of the woman to be celebrated on a new bill — somewhere, sometime. That in turn is sure to spawn a new spate of complaints, from all the fans of history’s heroines Lew passes over.


To Learn More:

            Should a Woman Replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 Bill? (by Steve Straehley, AllGov)

            Should Dollar Coins Replace Dollar Bills? (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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