Pull out your wallet. Get out all the bills and all the coins (assuming you are the type of person who has bills or coins). Guess how many of female faces you’ll be seeing on those coins?
If you live in the British Commonwealth, you’ll see a lot of one woman. If you live anywhere else, you are more likely to be looking at men. But it hasn’t always been like this. This episode is a brief history of women featured on the currency.
Women mentioned include Athena, Artemis, Tyche, Astarte, Cleopatra, Fulvia, Octavia, Livia, Julia, Agrippina, Juno Moneta, Lakshmi, Elizabeth I, Empress Maria Theresa, Queen Victoria, Lady LIberty, Lady Justice, Pocahontas, Lucy Holcombe Pickens, Martha Washington, Gabriella Mistral, Juana Ines de la Cruz, Selma Lagerlof, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Bertha von Suttner, Venus, Queen Beatrix, Elizabeth II, Ichiyo Higuchi, Murasaki Shikibu, Empress Jinggu, Harriet Tubman, and Azie Taylor Morton.
Selected Sources and Images
Athenians didn’t invent coins, but they had some of the most successful, and they featured a woman (albeit a mythological one). They had Athena on one side and her sacred bird on the reverse side, which gave them their name. Athenian owls were remarkably long lasting as currency, with more or less the same design being used from the late sixth century until the first century BCE.
Image by Numismati – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
It didn’t take Mediterranean rulers long to decide that using their own image was way better than using a god’s. As a result, most coins featured men, but there are exceptions, as Cleopatra proved here.
Image by PHGCOM – Own work by uploader, photographed at the British Museum, Public Domain
The occasional Roman woman got a coin too, like Fulvia Antonia, wife of Marc Antony.
Even the word “money” comes to us by way of a Roman goddess. This is Juno Moneta. Roman coins were minted in her temple.
The Mediterraneans were not the only ones to use coins. This Indian coin features, Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, fortune, and prosperity.
Image by Uploadalt – Own work, photographed at the British Museum, CC BY-SA 3.0
Chinese and Islamic coins generally don’t feature human figures at all, so there were no women on their coins. Over in the West, coins became more and more exclusively for demonstrating the power of the current ruler. And so we have women on coins only when a woman happened to be in charge, like this one of Maria Theresa of Austria.
By Windrain – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
Martha Washington has appeared on several U.S. banknotes, including this 1896 version which prompted some smart alecks to quibble with the design, saying that “No one should come between George and Martha!”
Image from Wikimedia Commons
Very few women have appeared on U.S. coins, but Sacagawea and Pocahontas are among them.
By United States Mint, Pressroom Image Library
Many people have pointed out that the U.S. has not yet featured an African-American woman on our currency. But they may not know that we have had an African-American woman’s signature. Azie Taylor Morton was the U.S. treasurer under the Carter administration, so her signature appears on all bills printed under that administration.
Japan had a long drought of women on banknotes, but they ended that in in 2003 and 2004 with Ichiyo Higuchi and then this one with Murasaki Shikibu.
By Bank of Japan. The illustrations on the bank note are paintings from 12th and 13th century scrolls. – Bank of Japan, Public Domain,
One of many sources for this week was Money: A History, edited by Jonathan Williams. It’s a great read and it’s got lots of fascinating pictures.
The Washington Post opinion on why Harriet Tubman should not be on the next $20 bill is here.
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