When I am battling insomnia, I most often turn to books to pass the sleepless hours. Yet once in awhile, when I am too tired to read but not able to sleep, I do resort to television. On one such night, I happened upon The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell. He had just begun a discussion related to currency, in particular the lack of women featured on US currency. Instead of lulling me to sleep, his words made me sit up in bed and pay attention.
Apparently, there have been just three women on circulating U.S. coins: Susan B. Anthony on the dollar coin from 1979-1981; Native American Sacagawea on the dollar coin beginning in 1999; and Helen Keller, who appeared on the reverse of the 2003 Alabama quarter. There has been only one woman on U.S. paper currency: First Lady Martha Washington appeared on the $1 silver certificate in 1886, 1891 and 1896.
There is nothing written in current law that would prevent a woman from appearing on US currency, provided that she is no longer living; only those who are dead can appear on paper currency. The other requirement is that the words “In God We Trust” must appear in an appropriate place on the bill.
While I found all of this very interesting, especially in light of the recent uproar in the UK over the petition to put Jane Austen on the 10-pound note, it was the person O’Donnell suggested should be the first woman to appear that startled me: Frances Perkins.
Frances Perkins…who was she? I am a well-educated woman, and I should know who this woman was. Yet while I am sure I had heard the name at some point in time, I couldn’t place her. This realization was enough to tell me that I certainly hadn’t studied her in depth at any point during my formal education. Yet if O’Donnell was recommending her above all other US women to be the first to appear on paper currency, she must have played a significant role in our country’s history. So why hadn’t I learned about her?
Frances Perkins was born in Massachusetts in 1880. She completed her undergraduate work at Mount Holyoke during a time when only 3% of US women attended college, and she earned her Masters degree from Columbia, where she studied economics and sociology. When she realized that her husband’s struggle with mental illness would prevent him from providing for the family (they had a daughter), she made the decision to continue her studies at Wharton College.
She began work as a factory inspector for New York State, and eventually became Commissioner of Labor under then Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt. When FDR became president, he asked Perkins to serve as his Secretary of Labor. Perkins was the first woman cabinet member in US history. She held the position for twelve years. In that time, she established Unemployment Insurance and Social Security. She also paved the way for Medicaid and Medicare—government health insurance. These measures would be added as an amendment to the Social Security Act in the 1960s. Perkins also established minimum wage and the forty-hour work week, and ended child labor. She was the woman behind the New Deal; she accomplished more than any president has ever accomplished, yet she took no credit. She just wanted to get it done.
Get it done she did. Frances Perkins should be taught in all US History and Social Studies classes. And yes, she should be the first woman to appear on US currency. Let’s start a petition. What other women have earned the right to appear on paper currency? I’d love to hear your nominations.