By Ellen R. Feingold
In June 2015, Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew announced his plans to redesign a US
banknote to feature an historic woman, marking the first major change in the appearance
of US paper money in nearly a century. This landmark announcement not only stimu-
lated an unprecedented national discussion around the design of US paper money, but
it also provoked an extraordinary national conversation about the significant roles that
women have played in the making of the nation.
To mark this historic moment, the National Museum of American History has opened
a new display titled “Women on Money.” This vibrant exhibit places the redesign of
US paper money into a global context and demonstrates that women have appeared on
money from ancient times to the present day. These depictions commemorate women’s
contributions to national and world history and convey national ideals and ideas. Thus
the display is organized around three themes: women on international money, women on
American money and female figures on money.
Arsinoe II on a decadrachm coin,
Egypt, third century BCE.
WOMEN ON INTERNATIONAL MONEY
One of the first historic women to appear
on money was Arsinoe II, a Ptolemaic
queen of Egypt, in the third century BCE.
Since then, many national currencies have
depicted women either during their life-
times or posthumously. Female political
leaders have appeared on money with the
greatest frequency. Powerful women — like
Pharaoh Cleopatra VII, Queen Elizabeth I
and Empress Maria Theresa — each issued
coins with their portraits, helping them
assert their influence over nations and
empires. Modern female politicians, such
as First Lady of Argentina Eva Perón and
Prime Minister of India Indira Gandhi,
have appeared on national currencies post-
humously, commemorating their political
leadership and helping to cement their
places in their national histories.
In recent years, some governments
have begun to reflect on the contributions
women have made outside the political
sphere and have chosen to honor women’s
achievements in the arts and sciences. For
example, Poland has depicted the Nobel
Prize-winning chemist Marie Curie on the
20 zloty note; Italy has honored Maria
Montessori, innovator in early childhood
education, on the 1,000 lira note; and
Fatma Aliye Topuz, a novelist and women’s
rights activist, has been honored on Tur-
key’s 50 lira note. Moreover, national com-
munities are increasingly recognizing the
role of female social activists as catalysts for
change. Images of suffragettes, such as New
Zealand’s Kate Sheppard, have appeared on
money as reminders of the importance of
equality in a democratic society.
Cleopatra VII on a 80 drachma coin,
Egypt, 51–30 BCE.
Images: The Numismatic Collection, National Museum
of American History, Smithsonian Institution
20 FINANCIAL HISTORY | Summer 2016 | www.MoAF.org
Elizabeth I on a half pound coin,
England, circa 1567–70.