Kate Maltby

Maggie’s great, but can’t the US find an inspiring American woman to go on their banknote?

Maggie's great, but can't the US find an inspiring American woman to go on their banknote?
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Banknotes, again. Now it’s America’s turn to suffer the unintended consequences of an ill-implemented campaign to inject some XX chromosomes into currency.

In June, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew announced that he was knocking founding father Alexander Hamilton, a self-made, illegitimate boy from the West Indies, off the $10 bill. There’s a nationwide hunt for a woman whose image could replace him: in this week’s Republican debate, Jeb Bush suggested Margaret Thatcher. You can even tweet your own suggestions to the Treasury, with the hashtag #TheNew10.

Now, I’m pretty keen on Margaret Thatcher. (If Jeremy Corbyn wants to end the scourge of personal abuse in politics, he could talk to her family, for starters). And I think women’s representation is pretty important. Banknotes stand for what a nation values: still, in most countries, that’s money and men. Currency is, by definition, metaphor made material. Grow up only handling white men on your banknotes, and you’ll get a strong impression women haven’t contributed much to gold reserves they represent.

But I’m hardly a fan of tokenism. If you’re going to kick a bloke off anything to make way for a woman, you had better well pick the right bloke. Hamilton is the definition of the self-made man: scholarships and his precocious intellect got him out of the West Indies, though not before a hardened pubescence working as clerk in the docks. A Jewish headmistress gave him his first education, after his bastard status barred him from the Church of England’s schools; his mother died a decade after giving birth to him; his guardian committed suicide. Hamilton’s first major piece of writing describes a hurricane devastating his town - an experience many of America's poorest, shanty-town citizens still share - forty years later, he died in a duel, at the hands of the Vice President of the United States. This was not a man on Team Establishment.

Like many of the founding fathers, Hamilton was a natural conservative. He gets rough press from idealist libertarians, particularly for his work in creating a national bank - ‘the founding father of crony capitalism’, screamed one unsympathetic biographer, Thomas DiLorenzo, when Hamilton was invoked to defend the banking bailout. But as Michael Federici points out in a recent biography, Hamilton was fundamentally a Tory pragmatist, not far off from Edmund Burke. He was a man with a pessimistic view of human nature: what could be more suitable for a banknote?

There’s much-discussed irony in Hamilton’s demotion occurring just as he’s become a Broadway star. Hamiltona rap musical performed by an almost all-black cast, now has a six-month waiting list for tickets, unless you’re Obama or Madonna. It’s a show celebrating Hamilton’s ambitious, self-destructive energy in a world set against him: the message, unsubtly, is that Hamilton is the closest the founding fathers get to a black man. It’s a foolish simplification, even though Hamilton founded the anti-slavery New York Manumission Society, which spurred a persistent rumour that he had black blood. As his biographer Richard Brookhiser puts it, ‘he didn’t; he only had principles’.

Yet if the American left is keen to get a black man on to a banknote (the atrocious term they insist on using is Person of Colour, as if race is as simple as getting an extra pencil for your child’s colouring-in book), effacing Hamilton is still a step in the wrong direction. At present, Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin are the only people on a dollar bill who haven’t been president of the USA. If America wants to think about more unconventional routes to power  - routes that have historically included women, and black people - let's move away from lionising America's long history of corrupt, horse-trading presidents. At the very least, scrub the genocidal Andrew Jackson instead. His own Broadway biopic was entitled ‘Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson’.

And Maggie’s great, but could Jeb not come up with a woman from his own country? It’s better than Chris Christie’s suggestion, Abigail Adams, wife and mother of two presidents. Per Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary Clinton, what’s with Americans still praising political marriage as a pathway to women’s achievement?  Mike Huckabee nominated his own wife: vomit. At least it’s not the interminable Mother Theresa (John Kasich’s suggestion) or Rosa Parks (every other pundit). If you want a brave black woman for America to celebrate, here’s my suggestion: Claudette Colvin. Colvin staged a spontaneous protest on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama nine months before Rosa Parks, in March 1955. The NAACP didn’t publicise her case, and barely supported her. Why? She was a pregnant, unmarried mother, hardly their ideal poster girl. Put her on a banknote, and that’s real social justice.

Written byKate Maltby

Kate Maltby writes about the intersection of culture, politics and history. She is a theatre critic for The Times and is conducting academic research on the intellectual life of Elizabeth I.