Why are we waiting?

The United States Congress is waiting to act on bipartisan legislation that would create a collection of commemorative quarters featuring the faces of prominent American women. The proposed law emulates a coin collection featuring state landmarks that is already in circulation and requires the Executive of all 50 states, U.S. territories and the District of Columbia to pick one representative figure. The only condition is that the pick has to be a deceased woman. The chosen icon will then be cast opposite President George Washington on the back side of each $0.25 coin.

The plan was introduced during Women’s History Month this March by Rep. Barbara Lee, Democrat of California, and her Republican counterpart, Rep. Bruce Poliquin of Maine, with strong lobbying from former U.S. Treasurer Rosa Rios. If it passes Congress and is signed into law, this new collection would likely enter circulation in 2021, the 101st anniversary of women’s suffrage in the U.S.

If the coins are made, it won’t mark the first time female faces have appeared on them. The likes of Susan B. Anthony, Helen Keller, Eunice Kennedy Shriver and Sacagawea, the Native American guide to Lewis and Clark, have previously been minted. More complicated is the task of getting women recognized on dollar bills.

“We support any effort to have women seen, represented and honored in every public forum possible,” says Susan Ades Stone, executive director of Women On 20s, which lobbies for female faces on paper currency.  “But we want to be very clear that we don’t see this as an alternative to putting a woman on paper currency, which is much more valued. That is a much more visible way of honoring women who have in the past not been recognized.”

In 2015, Stone’s group organized a poll in which over 600,000 votes were cast, leading to the selection of Harriet Tubman as a preferential pick for the $10 bill. They lobbied the Treasury and eventually settled on having the black abolitionist’s likeness replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill. Alexander Hamilton, the newly beloved founding father, will remain on the $10.

The Treasury didn’t return a request for comment. While the department’s approval is needed to issue paper currency, Congress retains the power to issue commemorative coinage.

A mock Harriet Tubman $20 bill (Women On 20s)

But in an increasingly cashless age of Venmo and Alipay, is Women on 20s flogging a dying horse? They clearly don’t think so. “Millennials are probably carrying less cash as it is, but if anything, they probably have a $20 bill,” says Ades Stone, a former CNN producer. Cash is “big, clean and comes out of an ATM. It’s used internationally. They’re a kind of national portrait gallery in a way I don’t believe coins are.”

Since current Treasury chief Steve Mnuchin took over however, the momentum behind Tubman for $20 appears to have stalled. Last fall, he called it “not something I’m focused on at the moment.” And in January, the Donald Trump appointee said he had made no decisions as to the fate of what would be the first black woman to appear on American paper currency.

“People think that Mnuchin is backpedaling on the plan, but we’re confident that when he takes the time to examine [the issue], he will decide it’s in the national interest to” put Tubman on the $20, says Ades Stone. “It shows that our society is one that values equality.”

But she also warns that her organization has some bite too if the Trump administration decides otherwise. “We have supporters with a lot of influence at the ready if we need to fight any kind of backlash,” she says. “That could come out if there were a decision to scrap the plan. We hopefully won’t need to do that.”