Every single image staring back at us from US paper currency tells a story. Taken together, these images form a narrative about the nation, its values, and its people. Until recently, the story of symbolism on US money has been one of how white America has racialized the mythology of the nation in its own image and interests. Currently, the images on US permanent paper money portray no women, no people of color, no Native Americans, and no working-class people. The images on the money, like our monuments, statues, street names, and geographical place names should be seen as contested territory.
In a history-making step, enslaved-liberator and abolitionist Harriet Tubman is scheduled to appear on the $20 dollar bill around 2030. Despite the reluctance that was clearly evinced by former president Donald Trump to proceed with the project, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has affirmed that security and design are moving forward and the $20 bill and other paper currencies ($5, $10, $50, and $100) with new images will be produced in the period between 2026 and 2034.
For most of US history, representations of women and people of color were rarely considered for inclusion in formal symbols projecting the nation’s origins and ethos. As a result, the overwhelming centrality of white men in official US narratives has perpetuated distorted or false versions of the nation’s political and racial history. In the process, both whiteness and maleness have long remained prerequisite conditions for access to privilege and power, while the struggles of “others” who have fought for freedom have been marginalized. This process—perpetuated from the days of settler-colonialism to the present through education, media, law, monuments, and the nation’s money—has indoctrinated generations to internalize the racist view that “American means white.” “All others,” Toni Morrison once said, “must hyphenate.”
Tubman fought for liberty and equality her whole life. Constantly underestimated, she risked her life and freedom on countless occasions to liberate others, and until her last breath remained committed to building a political system that endowed women and people of color with the same rights as white men. She never sought fame or riches for her efforts, only the justice and fairness that she believed was a right of all.
During the Obama era, a movement emerged to place women on US currency, and Tubman’s image was overwhelmingly favored as the lead choice. This took place even though Tubman’s relationship with the women’s rights movement—and its perception of her role in it—have both been complex and at times even contentious. For many, the way Tubman has been perceived by some in the broader white-dominated women’s rights movement has revealed the single-issue focus problematic that the intersectionality approach seeks to address and overcome. For Black women, liberation has involved confronting multiple forces of oppression, not just those that target their gender, a matter the larger feminist movement has been slow to address. Women of color, whether they identify as feminist or not, have long understood how the oppressive power dynamics of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation collectively define their lived experiences and socioeconomic status. How the women’s movement during Tubman’s lifetime understood these overlapping identities zigzagged politically and set the context for her engagement with it.
Following the historic 1848 Seneca Falls Convention that many consider the birth of the US women’s movement, an alliance of sorts was forged between the abolitionists and women demanding equal rights and suffrage. Frederick Douglass attended the Seneca Falls Convention, reportedly the only African American present, and drew the link between abolition and rights for women. In an essay published in his North Star newspaper immediately following the convention, he wrote: “In respect to political rights, we hold woman to be justly entitled to all we claim for man. We go further, and express our conviction that all political rights which it is expedient for men to exercise, it is equally so for women.” Susan B. Anthony, who would become the nation’s most prominent women’s rights activist, shared stages with Douglass as they both advocated for abolition and women’s suffrage.
Douglass and Anthony had a falling-out after the Civil War, however, when the 14th Amendment granted free African Americans full citizenship rights, and the 15th Amendment granted the franchise to Black men. Anthony and some of the other well-known suffragist leaders were incensed that women were not included in either amendment, especially when Douglass and other Black leaders supported both. As white attacks on Black people intensified following the Civil War, Douglass spoke bluntly about the critical importance of Black America winning the right to vote:
“I must say that I do not see how any one can pretend that there is the same urgency in giving the ballot to women as to the negro. With us, the matter is a question of life and death. It is a matter of existence, at least in fifteen states of the Union. When women, because they are women, are hunted down through the cities of New York and New Orleans; when they are dragged from their houses and hung upon lamp-posts; when their children are torn from their arms, and their brains dashed out upon the pavement; when they are objects of insult and outrage at every turn; when they are in danger of having their homes burnt down over their heads; when their children are not allowed to enter schools; then they will have an urgency to obtain the ballot equal to our own.”
Douglass was responding to a bitter diatribe from Elizabeth Cady Stanton, another prominent suffrage leader. Voicing raw white supremacist opposition to the 15th Amendment, she rhetorically asked, “Shall American statesmen, claiming to be liberal, so amend their constitutions as to make their wives and mothers the political inferiors of unlettered and unwashed ditch-diggers, bootblacks, butchers and barbers, fresh from the slave plantations of the South and the effete civilizations of the old world?” Her “indisputably racist ideas,” writes Angela Y. Davis in Women, Race & Class, “indicate that Stanton’s understanding of the relationship between the battle for Black Liberation and the struggle for women’s rights was, at best, superficial.”
The issue would also fracture the women’s movement from within. In 1866, the American Equal Rights Association (AERA) was formed by a coalition of abolitionists and feminists. However, in the battle over the 15th Amendment, which was ratified in 1870, the organization split and fell apart when some women supported it and others did not, including Anthony and Stanton. Both quit the AERA and formed the National Woman Suffrage Association. Their former colleagues created a rival organization with a similar name, the American Woman Suffrage Association.
It was during this period and into the 1890s that Harriet Tubman became more visible at meetings of women’s rights groups up and down the East Coast. Usually speaking from the floor as a visitor, she talked about her experiences freeing the enslaved, her wartime work, and about rights for African Americans. Tubman also used these opportunities to raise funds for her charity work assisting aged and indigent Black people. Most white women she encountered in this context often seemed more patronizing to her concerns than genuinely engaged with them. Few were active in fighting for the rights of African American women, and few spoke out forcefully against the increasing institutionalization of segregation or the rise of white violence against Black people. There were exceptions, however, such as activist Frances Seward and Quaker activist and writer Martha Coffin Wright, who helped organize the Seneca Falls Convention and was a close confidant of Douglass. Journalist and writer Dorothy Wickenden beautifully documents the close friendship between Seward, Wright, and Tubman in her book The Agitators: Three Friends Who Fought for Abolition and Women’s Rights.
Tubman’s most celebrated appearance at a women’s movement gathering was on November 18, 1896, at the New York State Woman Suffrage Association conference in Rochester. Tubman was led to the stage by none other than Susan B. Anthony. Both were in their late 70s and in the twilight of their careers. Tubman spoke about her experiences helping people escape slavery, telling one gathering of activist women, “Yes, ladies, I was the conductor on the Underground Railroad for eight years and I can say what most conductors can’t say—I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”
In 1900, Carrie Chapman Catt was voted in as president to fill the seat vacated by the elderly Susan B. Anthony. Astonishingly, Catt later stated to researcher Earl Conrad, “I never heard of Harriet Tubman.” Conrad was trying to establish the nature of Tubman’s relationship to the women’s rights movement and asked her to reflect on Tubman. “[Tubman] did not assist the suffragists or the woman suffrage movement at any time,” Catt later wrote to Conrad in 1939. “It was they who were attempting to assist her…. There was no leadership on the part of the colored people at that time and there is very little even now.”
Many other white feminists had similar prejudicial views. Susan B. Anthony’s niece, Lucy E. Anthony, told Conrad, “Harriet Tubman is just a name to me which I just remember Aunt Susan mentioning from time to time.” There is little evidence that the women’s suffrage movement, as opposed to some individual feminists, actually helped Tubman, as Catt claims. “Catt’s utter disregard for Tubman’s life history is striking, and her careless assessment of contributions of African American women to the suffrage movement presaged the reception Tubman’s biography would continue to receive for several more decades,” writes Kate Clifford Larson. Black women scholars and activists, such as Angela Y. Davis, Patricia Hill Collins, Nikki Giovanni, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, bell hooks, Barbara Smith, and many others have thoroughly documented Black women’s activism as well as the racism in the women’s suffrage movement.
Black women’s rights and suffrage organizations, Black women activists within white-dominated women’s groups, Black women’s scholarship, and Black women’s struggles within civil rights organizations were simply not acknowledged by the middle-class white women whose leadership guided the women’s movement into the 20th century, and in some instances, continues to this day.
Despite the accounts of white suffragist leaders, Black women were involved at every stage of the movement’s development, from the antebellum era up through the passage of the 19th Amendment and beyond. Among the many organizations from that time period were the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, the National League for the Protection of Colored Women, the National Council of Negro Women, and the Southeastern Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. To a significant degree, these organizations were also long written out of mainstream Black history texts but rescued in the literature of Black women scholars in the latter third of the 20h century. In real time, these institutions were vital to the Black community. Thousands of Black women were involved, and their organizing was often intergenerational. In some instances, mothers and daughters were active together for decades.
Not only were Black women an active part of the 19th-century women’s movement; they were also vocal regarding the racial inequality within it. Scholar Anna J. Cooper wrote one of the first books on Black feminism in 1892, A Voice from the South, advocating education and suffrage for African American women. In that work, she famously wrote, “Only the Black woman can say, ‘when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.’” Cooper received a PhD in history from Sorbonne University in France in 1925 when she was 66 years old. She was born in the last years of slavery in 1858 and passed away during the era of civil rights and black power in 1964.
While Tubman never led a women’s rights organization or seemed to be an ongoing active member of any one group, the last decades of her life were largely spent working with and speaking for suffrage and women’s rights. For the most part, her remarks were not documented.
On July 21, 1896, Tubman attended the inaugural meeting of the National Association of Colored Women Clubs (NACWC) as an honored guest. One of the women celebrating Tubman at that meeting was Rosetta Douglass, the daughter of Frederick Douglass. The NACWC advocated for voting rights for women, but unlike the white-dominated suffragist organizations, fought for a broader agenda that included advocacy against segregation. It was a merger of three black women’s organizations: National Federation of African-American Women, the Woman’s Era Club of Boston, and the National League of Colored Women of Washington, D.C., known by its motto, “Lifting as we climb.”
Tubman was surrounded by family and friends when she passed away on March 10, 1913, five days before what may have been her 91st birthday. The world was in transition. Woodrow Wilson was inaugurated, four days before she died, and World War I would begin the next year. Anti-lynching activism was rising, workers’ organizations were growing, and African Americans would soon be leaving the South in massive numbers. Tubman lived through 22 presidential administrations, and almost 200 years after her birth, she would be linked to Obama, the first African American president, whose administration sought to honor her by placing her image on the 20-dollar bill.
The appearance of the Tubman $20 and images of suffragettes, civil rights leaders, and Native Americans on the other paper currency will be groundbreaking moments in the long struggle for representation. While these steps will not feed the hungry, stop police violence against communities of color, or reverse climate erosion, they pushback against the broader assertion of white supremacy and exclusions that is critical in creating policies and politics that benefit everyone and not an elite few.