Why you should care
Because those coins you get from ticket machines are now sexist.
The United States is one of the only countries in the world with both a dollar coin and bill. For whatever reason, Congress has refused to pull the trigger on fully replacing Washington greenbacks with the more cost-effective coin. In 10 separate reports over the past 24 years, the Government Accountability Office has recommended that switching to the dollar coin would save American taxpayers billions of dollars. But as with health care, maternity leave and the metric system, the United States seems hell-bent on remaining the exception, statistics be damned.
At one point in the country’s history, this redundant dollar coin served an important purpose: Since its conception in 1794, it has been the only piece of U.S. currency to regularly, and famously, feature women. But in 2005, the passing of the Presidential $1 Coin Act stripped women of that unique privilege, replacing the visages of Susan B. Anthony, Sacagawea and Lady Liberty with U.S. presidents, several of whom are already featured on other U.S. currency.
Producing coins, more than half of which sit out of circulation in Federal Reserve vaults, along with bills, actually costs taxpayers more. So even without the added benefit of being the only piece of American currency to represent a contingent other than white, middle-aged men, it’s probably high time we stamped out the pricey dollar coin.
Congress and the U.S. Mint responded to these events with ambivalence — by pitting two strong American women against each other as they vied for a spot on a superfluous coin.
Time to fess up: Susan B. Anthony, the first nonfictional woman to grace the face of the dollar coin, was my great-great-aunt. Growing up, I had a bag full of Susan B. Anthony silver dollars, which I shined regularly with vinegar. My mother and her three sisters would tell me about how Aunt Susan fought tirelessly for abolition and women’s equality, and how at the age of 52 she went to jail for demanding to register to vote. One thing that was never mentioned and never even crossed my mind, however, was how she had looked.
All that changed in 1999 with the announcement that the image of Susan B. Anthony would be replaced by that of Sacagawea on the new millennium dollar coin. Like all American girls, I had heard the story of this remarkably brave young woman and admired her. So, while I was sad to see my great-great-aunt’s face taken off the coin, I was excited to see a new, equally strong, female figure take her place.
But it was during this time that I first heard people comment on how happy they were to see Aunt Susan’s “stern visage” go. Thus began my introduction to what I see as the sexist legacy of the American dollar coin: the story of how a few feminists, faced with a deeply sexist majority, tried and failed to get women represented on American currency. Congress and the U.S. Mint responded to these events with ambivalence — by pitting two strong American women against each other as they vied for a spot on a superfluous coin.
Both the Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea coins were disasters. The “Agony Dollars,” as they came to be called (because apparently Aunt Susan would be prettier if she smiled), were only minted for a record three years from 1979-1981. Sacagawea coins were pulled from circulation from 2002-2008 and from 2012 onward. Today, women and people of color seem to have been definitively banished from American currency.
But what about the Tubman $20 bill, then-Treasury Secretary Jack Lew promised us back in April 2016? Well, the Trump administration is sheepishly backing out of that commitment, refusing to outline any concrete plans. And even a Tubman $20 would be an ephemeral victory, as the world becomes increasingly cashless at the hands of cryptocurrencies and automatic transfer sites like Venmo. This trend looks set to continue, according to Jean-Philippe Vergne, co-director of the Scotiabank Digital Banking Lab. “Central banks have an interest in shifting to digital only. It helps combat counterfeiting, black market transactions and tax evasion,” he says.
And if the Treasury Department and Congress are so out of touch that they gave a very stern-looking Grover Cleveland two separate dollar coins for his nonconsecutive terms, I give up.