David W. Almasi
There’s a campaign underway to remove President Andrew Jackson’s face from the $20 bill and replace it with a woman as a way of “promoting gender equality.”
The group Women on 20s wants Jackson’s portrait removed in time for the 2020 centennial of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. They also, of course, want to “make our money more egalitarian, inclusive and an affirmation of American values.”
This group, however, doesn’t just want any woman. They want a woman of their own choosing. They will send President Barack Obama the specific woman they think should grace a future $20 bill.
Civil rights icon Rosa Parks, abolitionist Harriet Tubman and former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt were selected through an online vote from their 15 top choices. A fourth, Wilma Mankiller, the first female elected as a Native American tribal leader, was added “by popular demand” and as an obvious statement about the harsh Native American policies during the Jackson presidency.
(Editor’s note: Harriett Tubman received the highest number of online votes.)
All of these candidates share the distinction of being feminist icons, well-known historical figures or both. If this must be done at all, why not make a bold choice – one that’s free of a political agenda?
Since it’s money, how about having the first woman immortalized on paper currency be the first female self-made millionaire in American history?
Madam C.J. Walker is that woman, and her inspiring story makes her an ideal candidate.
Born on a Louisiana plantation in 1867 to newly-freed enslaved Africans, the future Madam Walker was an orphan by the age of 7 and hard at work in the cotton fields. Her situation improved only slightly after moving to St. Louis, where she made just $1.50 a day doing laundry and cooking meals.
This drudgery led to her losing her hair and discovering a cosmetic product that helped her grow it back. She got a job selling the product to others, and later started her own company to market her own similar product.
Walker’s “Wonderful Hair Grower” grew from a product sold door-to-door to being offered in mail-order catalogs. It eventually became the flagship for a whole line of beauty products targeted toward the Black community.
Filled the void
Walker persevered in a male-dominated era where separate-but-equal Jim Crow discrimination was the law of the land. She saw how other businesses ignored Black customers, and she stepped in to fill the void and became a success.
At the same time, she created jobs and new wealth in the Black American community. She founded institutions that educated tens of thousands of “Walker Agents” and built factories to make her products. In 1914, Walker told the National Negro Business League: “I am not merely satisfied in making money for myself, for I am endeavoring to provide employment for hundreds of women of my race.”
She also wasn’t stingy. Her philanthropic efforts built homes for the elderly, funded scholarships and helped build the YMCA in Indianapolis. Her inheritance helped foster the famed Harlem Renaissance.
She funded the newly-formed NAACP and National Conference on Lynching – lobbying President Woodrow Wilson herself late in her life to promote a federal ban on lynching.
The memories of Tubman, Parks and Roosevelt are already immortalized in statues, awards, street and highway names and buildings. Rosa Parks even has an asteroid named for her! Madam C.J. Walker was on a postage stamp in 1998, but all of the others, with the exception of Mankiller (who died in 2010), similarly had stamps issued in their honor.
Rather than just pushing a name people already know, making Madam C.J. Walker the new face of the $20 bill would be an inspired choice. It would honor a clever entrepreneur, job creator and philanthropist. It doesn’t simply fulfill a political agenda and potentially foster division.
Madam C.J. Walker is someone everyone should admire and a fine candidate to represent American women on our currency.
David W. Almasi is executive director of the National Center for Public Policy Research.