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Harriet Tubman’s Image Appearing on the $20 Bill Is a Really Big Deal

If you didn't know anything about the history of our country, you might think it was pretty strange to see that so many of us are actually quite moved by the decision to make Harriet Tubman the new face of the $20. After a lengthy process, and a passionate campaign, Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew announced that an image of Tubman will appear on the front of the $20 bill, with Jackson represented on the back. Here's why this is about more than just money, and what you should know.

If you didn’t know anything about the history of our country, you might think it was pretty strange to see that so many of us are actually quite moved by the decision to make Harriet Tubman the new face of the $20. After a lengthy process, and a passionate campaign, Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew announced that an image of Tubman will appear on the front of the $20 bill, with Jackson represented on the back. Here’s why this is about more than just money, and what you should know.

harriet tubman

(Photo Credit: hermitosis/Flickr)

1. Tubman was an inspiring figure.

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It’s really impossible, not to mention unfair, to attempt to sum up an historical figure like Harriet Tubman (and the context of her life and world) in just a few sentences. But, if you had the experience of most Americans, that’s exactly what the textbooks you read in school tried to do.

Surely the Underground Railroad deserved a closer look, but even if you did manage to dig deeper there, you probably didn’t know about Tubman’s role in helping John Brown coordinate his raid on Harpers Ferry, or her work as a spy, scout, and nurse for the U.S. Army during American Civil War. She was incredibly courageous, intelligent, and compassionate, and these traits transformed Tubman, and those she interacted with, throughout her life. Lingering on some study of any aspects of Tubman’s life will quickly lead you to a better understanding of just how incredible she truly was. Consider giving it a little time; you won’t regret it.

2. Jackson was pretty awful.

The idea that Andrew Jackson was horrifically violent and ruthless is hardly a controversial opinion in modern times. It’s easy to argue that he was in fact the worst “great” president in history. The Indian Removal Act, which is widely regarded as one of the most shameful chapters in American history, was Jackson’s cause, and he succeeded in getting it through congress in 1830. He then spent the next 30 years or more forcefully relocating Native American tribes west of the Mississippi.

The brutality of this policy is probably best known through its manifestation in what’s now remembered as the Trail of Tears, in which roughly 15,000 Cherokee were forced to travel hundreds of miles to newly dubbed Indian Territory in Oklahoma. Nearly one-third of them died along the way.

Indian removal was Jackson’s life’s work. He’d spent years leading vicious campaigns against the Creeks and Seminoles during his years as an Army General. Ultimately, he helped in transferring a tremendous amount of land to white, southern farmers; and he was probably elected because of his achievements in this area. It’s what Jackson was all about.

These days though, Americans are able to look at our history quite differently. And, our past acts of oppression, whether directed at slaves, Native Americans, or anyone else for that matter, aren’t something we’re proud of as a culture and society. Instead, we now venerate the individuals who somehow summoned the intelligent insight and bravery to stand up against these forces.

Harriet Tubman replacing Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill is the next step toward fully realizing those dreams, goals, and priorities. In the end, she (and those who fought alongside her) were right and their oppressors were terribly wrong. Her victory is being celebrated on an entirely new level with this decision. It sends a powerful message about how we feel about our past, and where we want to go in the future.

3. And, there are more changes to come.

Not only is Harriet Tubman going to appear on the front of the $20 bill within the next few years, but other changes to our currency are scheduled as well. The $5 and $10 notes will also change; women and civil rights leaders will be added. Hamilton and Lincoln will remain on the front, with new images occupying the back of the bills.

It’s important to keep in mind that the way in which cultures, genders, etc., are represented profoundly impacts the way we perceive equality. Studies have found that men “consistently perceive more gender parity” in the workplace than women do. The average crowd scene in movies only contains 17 percent women, perhaps because, at these ratios, a lot of people perceive the group as an even mix. If women or other minorities were properly represented, it might be seem like they’ve overrun the group.

We’ve all been trained, over the course of our lifetimes, to relegate some aspects of American history to metaphoric tiny boxes at the bottom of the page, as a side note to the real chapter and the most important information. The announcement about the changes to U.S. currency means that this is really changing. It’s high time.

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