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Legal tender equality: Americans lack a paper money woman

By Z. Byron Wolf, CNN
updated 1:04 PM EDT, Fri July 26, 2013
Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carneystands poses with the concept design for the new Bank of England £10 banknote, featuring author Jane Austen.
Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carneystands poses with the concept design for the new Bank of England £10 banknote, featuring author Jane Austen.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bumping woman from £5 note for Churchill caused outcry, Jane Austen on £10 note as make-good
  • In the U.S., only woman on currency was Martha Washington, on 19th-century silver certificates
  • Hellen Keller, Sacagawea and Susan B. Anthony have appeared on U.S. coins
  • The faces currently on U.S. currency were chosen in 1929

Washington (CNN) -- When Elizabeth Fry's likeness was bumped from the British £5 note in favor of Winston Churchill, it led to a public outcry and the announcement on Wednesday that Jane Austen's likeness would be added to the £10 note.

True, the queen, as the country's monarch, appears on British bills. But historical figures have been included on bank notes for decades. The vast majority have been men.

In the United States, there is no shortage of notable women, but bank notes haven't been updated since 1929, nine years after women gained the right to vote.

All of the paper money in the United States features men -- nine presidents, two former treasury secretaries and one Benjamin Franklin.

There's only ever been one woman featured on a piece of paper American money.

That was Martha Washington, who appeared on the "silver certificates" in 1886, 1891, and 1896, according to Lydia Washington, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Printing and Engraving.

There has never been an African American of either gender.

Washington explained that U.S. law gives power over the faces on bills to the treasury secretary. That's Jack Lew, whose signature is featured on bank notes.

It's official: Jack Lew's new signature

Being dead is the only technical requirement to appear on a bank note, but presidents have taken up most of the real estate, although there are exceptions, like Franklin, the Renaissance man and founding father who appears on the $100 bill.

A newly redesigned "Benjamin" with enhanced security features, raised printing and additional colors that shift in the light is set to enter circulation in October. But it will keep the portrait of Franklin.

Here's more from Washington's explanation of how the current faces got onto American dollars:

Jack Lew has new signature for bills
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Stewart, Kimmel crack on Lew's signature

"The figures that currently appear on U.S. currency were chosen in 1929 when the size of currency was reduced and standardized. Prior to the adoption of this smaller sized currency, a special committee was appointed by the Secretary of the Treasury to study this aspect of the design. It was determined that portraits of presidents of the United States have a more permanent familiarity in the minds of the public than any others."

"This decision was somewhat altered by the secretary of the treasury to include Alexander Hamilton, who was the first secretary of the treasury; Salmon P. Chase, who was secretary of the treasury during the Civil War and is credited with promoting our National Banking System; and Benjamin Franklin, who was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

"Records do not indicate the exact reasons why the portraits of these statesmen were chosen in preference to others of equal stature and importance, but all three were well known to the American public. "

Washington didn't have anything to offer in response to the ascendance of Jane Austen to the £10 note.

"In regards to the currency of other countries, we do not comment. Other countries do what they deem appropriate for their regions and social circumstances," Washington wrote.

Here is more information on currency at Bureau of Printing and Engraving website.

Currency, it should be said, is distinguishable from coins, which are produced by the U.S. Mint. Women have a better record when it comes to coins.

Helen Keller was put on the Alabama-themed quarter in 2003. Sacagawea, the Native American who guided Lewis and Clark on their cross-country expedition, is on dollar coins produced since 1999. Susan B. Anthony, the suffragette, was on dollar coins produced from 1979 to 1981.

Up in Canada, their $100 bill isn't paper, it's some kind of fancy plastic, but it does have a woman on it. She's supposed to be anonymous and represent Canadian medical innovation. But a woman looking into a microscope does bear some resemblance to British scientist Rosalind Franklin, who photographed the DNA double helix.

Side note: There was a Rosalind Franklin-themed Google Doodle running on Thursday, her birthday.

There doesn't appear to be any sort of national movement to put a woman on a piece of paper money, but if there were, who should it be? Leave your suggestions in the comments below.

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