Most of the people pictured on banknotes are men. But there are a few trailblazing women holding their own, featured on currency around the world.
This week, the US Treasury announced that abolitionist leader Harriet Tubman will replace slave-owner Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill. Jackson will be relegated to the reverse of the same bill. The Treasury also announced that the back of the $10 bill will feature suffragette leaders, such as Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
This is the triumphant culmination of a public campaign to put a woman on paper currency in the US. However, the actual use of the new bills will take a few more years. The Treasury is expected to release the new designs by 2020, the centenary of women’s suffrage in the US, and it will take even more time for the currency to enter circulation.
As a new Vox report reminds us, 48 countries around the world have already put women on paper currency. The choice isn’t as radical as it might seem at first glance, considering that the most popular woman on currency by far is Queen Elizabeth II, who features not just on English paper money, but also on the currencies of various former colonies.
Also, as the report points out, the representation of women leaders on world currency is underwhelming: only 9% of the whole world’s paper currency features women.
So, who are the women emblazoned on the world’s currency, defying erasure against all odds?
Many are revolutionaries, including suffragettes such as Kate Sheppard from New Zealand, the first country in the world to introduce universal suffrage in 1893. The suffragette Edith Cowan, also the first woman elected to Australia’s parliament, appears on the fifty dollar Australian banknote. Other women featured on Australian currency include social reformer and writer Dame Mary Gilmore, opera singer Dame Nellie Melba and 19th century businesswoman Mary Reibey.
The Dominican Republic has the iconic Mirabal sisters on the front of the 200 peso note and a picture of a monument dedicated to them on the reverse. Three of the four sisters, all part of an underground movement against notorious dictator Rafael Trujillo, were assassinated in November 1960 by Trujillo’s henchmen. The country’s 500 peso note features the renowned 19th century poet Salomé Ureña, who opened the country’s first centre for higher education for women.
Jamaica features Nanny of the Maroons, a powerful figure of resistance and a national hero, on its $500 bill. Nanny was an 18th century leader of the Jamaican Maroons, who escaped slavery in Spanish-owned plantations after the British colonised Jamaica in 1655. Many maroons had their origins among the Ashanti people of present-day Ghana and were brought to Jamaica as part of the transatlantic slave trade. After they escaped, they lived as free people in the mountainous interiors of Jamaica.
Large parts of Nanny’s life are shrouded in mystery. She is remembered as a master of guerrilla warfare and a perpetual thorn in the side of the British colonisers. She was a folk hero who founded a village in the Blue Mountains known as Nanny Town. She is also associated with obeah, a religious practice involving sorcery and magic.
Famed Mexican painter and active communist party member Frida Kahlo is featured on the back of the country’s 500 peso note. The front of the same note features her partner, the equally revered artist, Diego Rivera. Kahlo is also the first Hispanic woman to feature on a postal stamp in the US.
Kahlo was born and raised in Mexico City. She famously changed her birthdate to coincide with the beginning of the Mexican revolution, to align her own birth with the birth of the country. She is celebrated for her painting and remembered as a committed communist, as well as a revered feminist figure who painted her own life – and self – unabashedly. Also featured on Mexican currency is Juana Inés de la Cruz, described by the Daily Beast as “Mexico’s most erotic poet, and its most dangerous nun.”
Other famous women remembered on banknotes include writers Carmen Lyra (Costa Rica), Astrid Lindgren (Sweden), Higuchi Ichiyō (Japan) and Božena Němcová (Czech Republic).
Haiti’s Catherine Flon Arcahaie, who sewed the first national flag, and Chile’s Nobel Prize winner Gabriela Mistral are also featured on their country’s paper currency.
Others include queens and stateswomen, such as Albania’s Queen Teuta and Kyrgyzstan’s Kurmanjan Datka, as well as opera singers, seamstresses and reformers – women who have touched history and continue to shape it, making themselves felt in today’s still overwhelmingly patriarchal world.
In India too, there is a long-standing campaign to put a woman on a 100 rupee banknote, started by teacher Poonam Singh, who writes in a petition to the prime minister, the finance minister, and the governor of the Reserve Bank of India:
“If we want to change things for Indian women, there may be no single magical solution. But perhaps to highlight the work of Indian women, past and present, in contributing to Indian society would be a beginning? We would like to hold their lives up as role models for our current and future generations to look up to.
And what better way to achieve this, than to put these faces on a common everyday object, like a currency note? As this also happens to be a token of economic power, it has a symbolic purpose too.” Among the contenders suggested are Savitribai Phule, Aruna Asaf Ali and Bhikhaji Cama.