Suffragist Belle La Follette earned a spot on the $10 billRoundup
tags: womens rights, 10 dollar bill, Suffragist, Belle La Follette
Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew is calling for nominations for a woman to grace the $10 bill that will be released in 2020. Already names are flying fast and furiously, with Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, and Harriet Tubman leading the pack. As a scholar of women’s history, I have a few suggestions to help narrow the field for this exciting race.
Two women are already penalized by false starts: suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony and Indian guide Sacagawea were featured on dollar coins that failed to gain popularity. While such a handicap doesn’t necessarily scratch them from the race, the argument can be made for fresh candidates untainted by previous poor performances out of the gate.
One way to narrow the field is to limit the competition.
The redesigned bill will be unveiled in 2020, the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote. Reducing the field to women instrumental in creating this enormous advance in democracy would make a powerful statement. Drawing from among the leading suffrage advocates would highlight the importance of the struggles by dedicated Americans, past and present, for basic rights.
Surveying that field, Elizabeth Cady Stanton initially appears the odds-on favorite. Born in 1815, she was an abolitionist before she narrowed her focus exclusively to women’s rights. But Stanton carries with her a huge handicap.
Like Susan B. Anthony, she was willing to throw other victims of discrimination under the bus in order to elevate the “better classes” of womanhood. Calling to “American women of wealth, education, virtue and refinement,” she urged, “if you do not wish the lower orders of Chinese, Africans, Germans and Irish, with their low ideas of womanhood, to make laws for you and your daughters … awake to the danger of your present position and demand that woman, too, shall be represented in the government!”
Another possible frontrunner is Alice Paul (1885-1977). Hilary Swank’s portrayal of Paul in the 2004 HBO film “Iron Jawed Angels” gained a new generation of fans for this fiery activist fed up with the “genteel persuasion through education” approach of most American suffrage campaigners. Paul brought back to the United States the more aggressive tactics she learned in England. She was arrested in London seven times for acts of protest.
Like many an activist before her, Paul paid a high price for her refusal to cooperate with a system that denied her equal rights. When she went on hunger strikes in London’s Holloway Prison in 1909 she was force fed 55 times, a painful process that left her physically debilitated.
Nevertheless, she endured it again upon her return to the U.S. the following year. American suffragists inspired by her righteousness and passion soon found themselves sharing a jail cell — and headlines — with the fearless Paul.
Yet Paul too faces a potentially crippling handicap in the $10 bill sweepstakes. Like Stanton and Anthony before her, Paul’s dedication to achieving her goal led her to trample the goals of others.
Once the vote was achieved, Paul led the campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment. At the 1921 convention of the National Woman’s Party, it was at Paul’s insistence that host of ambitious resolutions be voted down, including rights and protections for working women. Despite the vast potential good they might do, Paul rejected such aims as mere distractions from her ultimate goal.
Sometimes the winner in a big race is a come-from-behind entrant facing very long odds.
One such contender for the $10 bill contest is Belle La Follette, wife of one U.S. senator and mother to another. Alice Paul called La Follette “the most consistent supporter of equal rights of all the women of her time,” and the New York Times hailed her as “perhaps the least known, yet the most influential of all American women who have had to do with public affairs in this country.”
As a journalist and a tireless speaker, La Follette fought not only for the vote, but used her considerable clout to openly attack the racial segregation efforts of the Woodrow Wilson administration. For her insistence that “merit, not sympathy, demands that [African Americans] should not be discriminated against and should be accorded the justice due them as citizens of a democracy,” she received hate mail denouncing her as “disgraceful to the white race.”
The smart money in this race may well be placed on such a dark-horse candidate. The winner of the competition for the $10 bill should be a woman who waged the fight not just for her sex, but for equal rights for all.
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