Hey, Where the Women At?

March is Women’s History Month in the United States. As the month draws to a close in 2020, I thought I would highlight women featured on American paper money. Doing so, however, would result in a very short discussion. In the more than 150 years the United States government has issued paper money, a total of two women have graced its notes: Martha Washington and Pocahontas. And only one of those two — Martha Washington — was featured on the face of the note.

Women do not fair much better on American coinage with only three women appearing on regular issue coinage: Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea on dollar coins and Helen Keller on the Alabama entry of the state quarter series.

Since there are no American women on paper money to talk about (I do not have notes with either of these women in my collection), let’s look at some of the women honored on the bank notes of other countries.

Viola Desmond. The Bank of Canada placed Viola Desmond on the $10.00 note in 2018. Desmond was a black civil rights leader and business owner in Nova Scotia. She developed a line of beauty products for black women and opened a beauty school in Nova Scotia specifically for black women. Racial discrimination prevented black women from attending the beauty schools in Nova Scotia. Desmond had to travel to Montreal and the United States for training.

While on a business trip to Sydney, Nova Scotia, in 1946, Desmond was arrested for refusing to leave the whites-only section of a movie theater. She had purchased a balcony seat but moved to the floor because her eyesight was not good. She was arrested, spent twelve hours in jail and paid a fine of $20.00. She fought the case in court. She was prosecuted for tax evasion for only paying the tax on the cheaper balcony seat she purchased and not the tax on the more expensive seat she moved to. The difference in the tax was $.01 She was convicted. Her case received widespread attention in Canada as it was one of the first challenges to that countries Jim Crow attitudes. She died in New York in 1965. She was posthumously pardoned in 2010.

Kate Sheppard. Kate Sheppard appears on the $10.00 note issued by the Reserve Bank of New Zealand. She was the foremost promoter of women’s suffrage in New Zealand. After the death of her father in 1862, Sheppard’s mother moved the family to New Zealand from Scotland. She was active in several religious organizations including the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Through the WCTU she presented petitions regarding alcohol matters to Parliament all of which were rejected. She felt that the all-male Parliament would continue to ignore the WCTU as long as women could not vote. In 1892, she presented a petition with 20,000 signatures seeking universal suffrage. It was rejected. A year later when she presented a petition with 30,000 signatures, the New Zealand Parliament approved the bill becoming the first country to have universal suffrage in all elections.

The Mirabal Sisters. Patria, Minerva, María Teresa and Dedé Mirabal were four sisters who actively opposed the regime of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic in the 1950s. On November 25, 1960, Patria, Minerva and María Teresa were assassinated by Trujillo henchmen along with their driver. Their killing sent a shock wave throughout the country and contributed to Trujillo’s assassination six months later. In 1997, the sisters were recognized as national martyrs. In 1999, the United Nations designated the anniversary of their assassination as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

Marie Curie. Marie Curie, the physicist and chemist, has the distinction of being the only woman to be honored by being depicted on bank notes from mote than one country. She appeared on notes from Poland, the country of her birth, and France, her adopted country. She is well-known for her pioneering work on radioactivity. Her most noted accomplishment was being awarded the Nobel Prize in both chemistry and physics, the only person to have received the award in more than one discipline.

Greta Garbo. Five of the six current notes issued by the Riksbank in Sweden feature Swedes from the arts and literature. (The only outlier is former UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld on the 1,000 kronor note). The actress Greta Garbo appears on the 100 kronor note.

A country’s paper money is a canvas which can showcase its history, culture, natural resources and personalities. Unfortunately, the innovation in design and subject matter found elsewhere is lacking in the United States.

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