Basic Biittner : Honoring a Heroine

Monday, May 18, 2015
Harriet Tubman

Anyone out there know who Harriet Tubman was? If not, you may soon find out, because the 19th Century woman is in the news here in the 21st Century. There has been a campaign recently, dubbed the 'Women on 20s,' campaign, to replace former President Andrew "Old Hickory" Jackson's image on the $20 bill with that of a distinguished American woman. More than 600,000 votes were cast over 10 weeks, including more than 350,000 in the final round that began on April 5,

and Tubman narrowly edged Eleanor Roosevelt as the winner, finishing with 118,328 votes to Roosevelt's 111,227. Early on, Roosevelt had led Tubman by nearly 15,000 votes, but the final round brought a reversal.

In the Women on 20s vote, Rosa Parks came in third, with 64,173 votes and Wilma Mankiller, the first woman to become the Cherokee Nation's chief, was fourth, with 58,703. Others on the ballot included Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Clara Barton and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Unfortunately, the stories of many of these notable women are a complete mystery to the majority of Americans - especially younger citizens, some of whom have been shown to be as ignorant about Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington as they are about the women listed above.

For the uninformed, and to refresh the memories of some of you who may have forgotten, Harriet Tubman (c. 1822 -- March 10, 1913) was an African-American abolitionist, humanitarian, and during the American Civil War, a Union spy. Born into slavery, Tubman escaped and subsequently made about thirteen missions to rescue approximately seventy enslaved family and friends, using the network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the "Underground Railroad", and later, in the post-Civil War period, she was involved in the struggle to get voting rights for women. Tubman died in 1913, well-respected but virtually penniless.

It has been noted that Tubman's appearance on the $20 bill would have a special historical resonance because that's the amount she eventually (in the 1890s) received from the U.S. government as her monthly pension for her service as a nurse, scout, cook and spy during the Civil War, as well as for her status as the widow of a veteran.

We should note that the Women on 20s campaign was unofficial, and nothing may ever come of it. However - the group has sent a petition to President Obama, asking him "to order the Secretary of the Treasury to change the current portrait portrayed on our American $20 bank note to reflect the remarkable accomplishments of an exemplary American woman who has helped shape our Nation's great history," and that is the appropriate action needed for such an event to occur. It literally does NOT require an "Act of Congress."

In addition to the move to get her on the $20 bill, there has also been a separate movement, started prior to the $20 movement, to get a statue of Tubman placed in the Statuary Hall in the US Capitol to replace one of the current statues representing Maryland, the state where Tubman resided for many years. This may or may not happen. Tubman also lived in Canada for a time after she escaped slavery, but for most of her later life she lived in Auburn, New York, where she has been honored with statues, museums, etc.

Women make up more than 50% of the U.S. population, and a substantial portion of U.S. citizens are what used to be called "minorities," but are now sometimes referred to as "persons of color," which, as a combined group, are hardly a minority. Every person now pictured on our coinage and paper money is a male of the "Caucasian persuasion."

The President and Secretary of the Treasury can change that soon, if they choose to do so.