It’s not every day that a historian is
asked to join a select group of scholars from around the country to give
advice to the U.S. Treasury secretary, but that’s what happened
recently to the University of Delaware’s Arwen Mohun, who studies the
social and cultural history of technology.
Mohun, professor and chairperson of the Department of History,
spent a day at the Smithsonian Institution in August as part of a
group that was invited to offer input on the question of a redesigned
$10 bill. Treasury Secretary Jacob (Jack) Lew had already announced that
a new bill to be issued in 2020 would, for the first time in more than a
century, feature a woman’s portrait.
Since that announcement, public interest has run high, with advocates
pressing for the honor to go to a wide range of prominent historical
figures, including civil rights leaders, social reformers and the
founder of the Girl Scouts of the USA.
After attending the meeting at the Smithsonian, Mohun suspects that
the final choice will come down to two women — Eleanor Roosevelt or
Harriet Tubman — although the decision will be made by Lew, who does not
need any further approval to authorize a new bill.
In fact, the Treasury Department says in an informational website on the subject, public input has rarely been sought in previous currency redesigns.
In July, a Treasury official contacted Mohun to ask her to be part of
a roundtable of thought leaders that would meet at the Smithsonian with
Lew and other officials.
“I’ve had a relationship with the Smithsonian for 30 years, but the
invitation really came out of the blue,” said Mohun, who has been a
researcher at the institution and has former students who worked there.
“I don’t know who recommended me, but it turned out to be a wonderful
experience. There were great historians there, and the conversation was
The 16 invited experts came from institutions and organizations
including Harvard and Yale universities, the universities of California
and Texas, the American Historical Association and the National Currency
They gathered at a conference table, in a room guarded by the Secret
Service, and spoke with Lew and U.S. Treasurer Rosa Rios, while Treasury
Department staffers sat nearby and listened in on the discussion.
“What they wanted from us was to find out who we thought would be the
best choice and why,” Mohun said. “There were social and cultural
historians, currency historians and women’s historians. It was very
interesting to hear how different people see this issue so differently.”
She said Lew told the group that there are few rules for currency
design, but George Washington must appear on the $1 bill and no living
person may be featured. Beyond that, the overarching concern is that
currency must be as protected from counterfeiting as possible.
Security is also the key to deciding the order in which bills are
redesigned, which is why the $10 note is the next in line for a
“I learned a lot about currency that I had never known before,” Mohun
said. “As a historian, being part of this was quite an opportunity.”
Who should be featured?
Mohun went to the roundtable with a preference for selecting Harriet
Tubman, the former slave who led many others to freedom via the
Underground Railroad. An abolitionist, humanitarian and Civil War spy
for the Union, Tubman would be the first African American ever pictured
on U.S. currency, and Mohun said she thinks that would make an important
“The U.S. currency is really a global currency” accepted virtually
everywhere, she said. “Whoever is chosen to be on the bill will tell the
world something about America’s values.”
In the discussion at the Smithsonian, Eleanor Roosevelt also emerged
as a strong candidate. In addition to her long and politically active
tenure as first lady, she was an outspoken advocate for human rights and
was one of the first U.S. delegates to the United Nations, chairing its
inaugural Commission on Human Rights.
The Treasury Department, which has already received more than a
million comments from the public on the question of redesigning the
bill, has urged “a public dialogue about how we can use the new $10 note
to best represent the values of our inclusive democracy,” according to
Other names that have been widely mentioned for the honor include:
- Jane Addams, a pioneer settlement social worker and founder of the
Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, received the 1931
Nobel Peace Prize.
- Susan B. Anthony, a social reformer and feminist, as well as an abolitionist, was a leader in the women’s suffrage movement.
- Helen Keller, an author, educator and activist who was deaf and
blind, was a leading humanitarian and champion for people with
- Juliette Gordon Low founded the Girl Scouts of the United States,
welcoming members across class, cultural and ethnic boundaries.
- Rosa Parks, an anti-segregation activist whose civil disobedience
launched the Montgomery bus boycott, is known as the mother of the U.S.
civil rights movement.
- Sacagawea, a Shoshone woman, provided key help to the Lewis and
Clark expedition, making contacts with Native Americans across thousands