Responding to complaints that famous women were underrepresented on British currency, the Bank of England this week announced that novelist Jane Austen will replace naturalist Charles Darwin on the 10-pound note beginning in 2017. Inevitably, the move has prompted discussion about whether it’s time for some of the male figures who appear on American bills to make way for prominent women. It’s an intriguing idea, but it would require an important cultural shift that has nothing to do with gender.
Like other European countries, Britain has a tradition of using its paper money to honor figures who made their reputations not in politics but in science or the arts. In some countries, the policy of memorializing artists and scientists on currency was necessitated by the dearth of past political leaders suitable for the honor. (Before adopting the euro, Germany issued bank notes honoring the Brothers Grimm and the scientist Paul Ehrlich of “magic bullet” fame, but not Hitler or Kaiser Wilhelm.)
But currency bearing the images of artists and scientists also reflects a sense of national identity that is alien to Americans. We tend to define the nation in constitutional, not cultural, terms. There’s no minister of culture in the president’s Cabinet, and even minimal government subsidy of the arts remains controversial.
Putting scientists on paper money also might alienate a lot of Americans. Charles Darwin probably wouldn’t make the cut, even if he had been an American. According to a 2012 Gallup Poll, 46% of Americans believe in the creationist view that God created humans in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.
In this country, only presidents, other high officials and Founding Fathers are considered worthy of having their countenances adorn paper money. (Two women, Susan B. Anthony and the Native American guide Sacagawea, are portrayed on little-used $1 coins.) But if currency criteria were changed to admit writers, artists and scientists to the charmed circle, the gender imbalance would be easier to redress. Only recently have women ascended to political power in the United States, but they have shaped American culture since the founding.
Paradoxically, while it remains priggishly narrow in its criteria for being featured on paper money, the U.S. is pretty promiscuous about who gets to be commemorated on postage stamps, honoring not only real-life cultural icons such as Rosa Parks, Walt Disney and Johnny Cash but also fictional characters like Superman, Mickey Mouse and the Simpsons.
Featuring the images of writers and artists on American currency would be a radical step, but perhaps it’s overdue. If Britain can put Jane Austen’s face on a 10-pound note, what’s wrong with a $10 bill bearing the image of Amy Lowell, Emily Dickinson or Harriet Beecher Stowe? A more inclusive policy also would allow for the celebration of male Americans who never practiced politics but still helped to define America, from Walt Whitman to Jonas Salk to Jackie Robinson.
If nothing else, broader criteria would make American currency more interesting to look at. We’ve been staring at those dead presidents for a long time.