The Treasury Department is struggling to agree on a woman whose face might replace that of Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill. The leading contenders for the place of honor, evidently are Harriet Tubman, the 19th-century black abolitionist and leader of the Underground Railroad; Susan B. Anthony, the suffragette; Rosa Parks, the Montgomery woman whose act of defiance kicked off the bus boycott in that city in 1955; and first lady, political activist, and U.N. delegate Eleanor Roosevelt. The selection of any of those, I would like to suggest, would reflect changes in our view of history that have nothing to do with feminism—and that would contribute to one of the most serious national problems we face today namely, our general contempt for politics and political leadership. The reason is that none of those worthy women made their name mainly as public servants.
Until the late 1960s, I would argue, Americans, while differing on specifics, were generally united in their respect for their nation’s democratic experiment and the leaders who had begun, continued and extended it. The generations that made the American Revolution and wrote the Constitution were keenly aware that they were introducing a new form of government into the modern world and desperately wanted it to succeed. Lincoln cast the Civil War as an attempt to preserve that new form of government—to insure “that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson attempted to make democracy work in the industrial age, and Franklin Roosevelt during the Second World War cast the United States as the defender of democracy on the world stage. Until the Vietnam War, most Americans saw their role in that light as well. Thus, Americans found it completely natural to put Presidents and a few other political leaders on their currency. Neither women nor black Americans, of course, enjoyed full citizenship until the twentieth century, but for the most part, this did not make them reject the premises of the United States as such. Instead, it simply made them eager to become full and equal participants in the democratic experiment, as indeed, eventually, they did.
Unfortunately, two thirds of the way through the twentieth century, at the moment that this process seemed on the verge of completion, entirely different views took hold on both sides of the political spectrum. The right, initially represented by Barry Goldwater, began to view the federal government as the enemy of liberty. The left, represented initially by student movements, saw both the whole government and American society as evil from the beginning, an oppressor of nonwhites, women, and poorer Americans. Their views widely popularized by the historian Howard Zinn, whose People’s History of the United States argued that all change from the better had come from the bottom of society, not from political elites. The left’s only heroes, from that day forward, were activist members of oppressed groups—people such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, and Rosa Parks. The left for the past five decades has been obsessed with moral purity, and that is indeed easier to find among activists devoted solely to the pursuit of justice than among the men and woman who have the largely thankless but absolutely necessary job of governing us all. The profound results of these opinion shifts now stand out in bold relief: a general contempt for our political leadership and our political parties, especially among young people. That is one of the major reasons for the rather shocking turn that this year’s Republican presidential nominating contest has already taken.
Thus I would like to suggest that Hamilton be replaced, not by any of the four leading candidates, but by a female public servant. It is true that Eleanor Roosevelt did hold an important government position after her husband’s death, as chief delegate to the new United Nations, but it is also true that she became a national figure because of her husband’s election, which she very cleverly exploited for her own political purposes. The selection of such a woman is complicated by a provision in law: no living person can have their portrait on our currency. Strong candidates such as Sandra Day O’Connor, who wrote some very important opinions in a long career as our first female Supreme Court Justice, and Nancy Pelosi, who occupied the chair of Speaker of the House for four critical years and was ultimately perhaps the person most responsible for the passage of the Affordable Health Care Act, cannot be selected because they are both very much alive. We must look further back in our history.
My first eligible candidate, then, would be Frances Perkins, the first woman appointed to the cabinet. Ms. Perkins was far more than the woman who broke that particular barrier. A long-time political activist in New York State, she was appointed Secretary of Labor by Franklin Roosevelt, and served in that position for the whole of his presidency. At no time in our nation’s history was that job more important. The Depression and the New Deal led to the most rapid growth in unions in our history, and the Labor Department was expanded to include the National Labor Relations Board, which set up procedures to decide whether, and by whom, workers in specific firms or industries would be unionized. Of course, very few people today would be able to identify Frances Perkins—but one could argue that that is an argument for, rather than against, making her a presence in our daily lives once again.
A second candidate would be Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican, born in 1897, who represented Maine as a Congresswoman from 1940 through 1949, and in the Senate for the next 24 years. During the Second World War she took a keen interest in promoting the role of women in the military, helping to start the WAVES, the women’s branch of the Navy, but also emerged more generally as an expert in naval affairs. A moderate Republican, she was not opposed to much of the New Deal, and fought the existence of the House Un-American Activities Committee. After her election to the Senate, she became one of the first members of that body to speak out boldly and frankly against the wild accusations of another Republican, Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. She was, in short, exactly the kind of courageous, independent-minded public servant, devoted to the public good and to the rights of her fellow Americans, that we desperately need more of today. In 1964, she ran for the Republican nomination for President and was the first woman ever to be placed in nomination at a major party convention. A maverick to the end, she supported the Vietnam War, but voted against President Nixon’s nominations of two white southerners, Clement Haynesworth and Harold Carswell, to the Supreme Court. Both nominations failed.
The selection of Perkins, an important cabinet member in a critical period, would be somewhat parallel to the man she would replace, Hamilton, who never rose above Secretary of the Treasury. The selection of Smith, a legislator, would be a new departure, but a very welcome one, helping put more attention on the possibilities for doing good and defending the rights of Americans within the legislative branch. Already, as I have noted, we have other good living female candidates, and in the next few decades many more will emerge. But the choice of Perkins or Smith would remind us all of an increasingly inconvenient truth. While activists may inspire us, we ultimately must depend on the men and women with the fortitude to secure election or accept appointment to high office, where they and they alone will make great decisions that shape our lives.