6 women we would love to see on dollar bills

21 Apr 2016

Harriet Tubman, replacing Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill. Image: US Library of Congress (PD_US)

The US Department of the Treasury yesterday (20 April) unveiled three new-look dollar bills, featuring women for the first time since Martha Washington was depicted briefly on the $1 silver certificate in the late 19th century.

The Treasury Department revealed changes to three denominations of dollar bills, most notably removing slave owner Andrew Jackson from the front of the $20 – moving him to the back – and replacing him with his polar opposite, Harriet Tubman.

Tubman, born a slave, became an instrumental part of the Underground Railway, helping slaves escape to freedom. She was an active player in the US Civil War, and later supported women’s suffrage.

The reverse of the $10 note – which retains the existing portrait of Andrew Hamilton on its front – will honour the women’s suffrage movement and feature Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B Anthony and Alice Paul.

The reverse of the $5 note – which features Abraham Lincoln on the front – will honour the civil rights movement and highlight the events at the Lincoln Memorial, when Martin Luther King Jr delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. It will depict Marian Anderson, Eleanor Roosevelt, and MLK himself.

The prospective changes were first announced by Treasury Secretary Jack Lew last June, and yesterday’s announcement comes after a lengthy period of consultation. In fact, the initial decision deadline of December was missed due to the volume of responses from the public.

What was initially supposed to be a redesign of just the $10 note grew to encompass the $5 and $20 based on those responses.

The new dollar bills will enter circulation in 2020, in part to coincide with the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage – the introduction of the 19th amendment – in the US.

The Treasury Department had strict criteria for making these choices. They had to be women, they had to be dead, and they had to have furthered the course of democracy. (They cheated a little with Martin Luther King Jr, but his inclusion is certainly deserved.)

But what if, rather than women who furthered the cause of democracy, the Treasury Department had chosen instead to honour and celebrate women who had furthered the cause of science, technology, engineering or maths?

Here are just six of the exceptional women they could have chosen.

Sally Ride

Sally Ride aboard STS-7 space shuttle

Sally Ride aboard the STS-7 space shuttle. Image: NASA

Sally Ride was the first American woman in space.

Part of the first group of women astronauts selected for the space programme, Ride joined NASA in 1977, beating out thousands of others to become one of only six chosen.

Ride flew on a space shuttle mission in 1983, becoming the first woman to do so. As a mission specialist, she helped deploy satellites and worked on other projects. She carried out a second mission in 1984, again working as a mission specialist.

Ride left the space programme in 1987, but stayed in the space business, becoming the director of the California Space Institute and a professor of physics at UC San Diego.

Up until her death in 2012, Ride devoted her life to the furthering of science and maths education. She was the founder, president and CEO of Sally Ride Science, a programme designed to inspire girls and young women to pursue their interest in those areas.

Grace Hopper

Rear Admiral Grace Hopper

Rear Admiral Grace Hopper. Image: US Navy

Rear Admiral Grace Hopper was one of the first computer programmers, and was instrumental in the development of programming language COBOL – the first common programming language for business.

Having studied maths and physics at Vassar and Yale, Hopper earned a PhD in mathematics in 1931. In 1943, Hopper left a teaching job at Vassar to enlist in the US Navy, where she was assigned to the programming staff for a new computer at Harvard.

In the 1950s, Hopper started working with the team developing a new computer called UNIVAC I. It was at this time that she developed the first compiler – a program that transforms source code from one programming language into another – something her colleagues didn’t believe was possible.

Hopper also coined the term ‘debugging’ through a favourite anecdote about having to remove a moth from the circuitry of a glitch computer.

Hopper returned to the Navy later in life, before retiring in 1986. Until her death in 1992, she remained involved in the computer industry.

Barbara McClintock

Barbara McClintock

Barbara McClintock. Image: Smithsonian Institute Archives

Barbara McClintock was a Nobel Prize winner for her work in genetics.

After earning a BS and a master in biology, and a PhD specialising in cytology, genetics and zoology, McClintock undertook the study of corn chromosomes that would take up her entire professional life.

In the 1940s, McClintock discovered that genetic information is not stationary – that chromosomal changes could bring about genetic changes.

When her work was dismissed by fellow scientists, McClintock stopped producing papers and stopped lecturing, but her research continued.

When her findings were finally verified decades later, the deserved plaudits rained in, and McClintock was awarded the 1983 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.

Margaret Hamilton

Margaret Hamilton, pictured during her time at NASA

Margaret Hamilton, pictured during her time at NASA. Image: NASA

Margaret Hamilton was the lead software engineer for NASA’s Apollo missions, and created the code that allowed Apollo 11 to land on the moon. In fact, she hand-wrote it.

One of the first software engineers, Hamilton came to the discipline at a time when there were no courses teaching you how to do it – it was something that you felt out through on-the-job experience. She and her colleagues were inventing the core ideas that led to modern computing.

Working with NASA on Apollo, Hamilton was responsible for onboard flight software for all Apollo computers.

The code that she and her team wrote proved essential to the Apollo 11 mission. Moments before the lander was due to touch down on the moon, the computer started spewing error messages – it was trying to do more than it could handle.

Hamilton et al had anticipated this, and written a failsafe into the code, meaning that the computer dismissed non-essential functions and devoted its computing power to the highest priority job – landing.

Gertrude Belle Elion

Gertrude Elion

Gertrude Elion. Image: National Cancer Institute

Gertrude Belle Elion won a Nobel Prize for her work in pharmacology.

Studying science at college, Elion discovered a love for chemistry. After undertaking a graduate degree in chemistry, Elion began working in laboratories, before finding her home at the lab of George Hitchings.

Working with Hitchings, Elion carried out instrumental work in the development of new pharmaceutical drugs.

Using groundbreaking methods that created medicines by studying disease-damaged cells, they developed drugs to combat viral infections, including leukaemia, herpes and AIDS, as well as to lessen the risk of rejection in kidney transplants.

Elion was awarded the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, shared with Hitchings and James Black.

Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson was a noted marine biologist and one of the founding figures of the environmental movement.

Holding an MA in zoology from Johns Hopkins, Carson pursued a vaunted career writing about nature and the environment.

Rising from a position writing radio scripts for the US Bureau of Fisheries to become editor-in-chief of all Fish and Wildlife Service publications, Carson wrote numerous pamphlets on conservation and natural resources, edited scientific articles, and wrote articles and books about her work.

Later in her career, Carson became an advocate against the use of chemical pesticides, despite attacks from the chemical industry. She cited the irreversible damage it could do to the ecosystem, and encouraged people to consider the power we as humans have over the natural world.

Note: This list adheres to the Treasury Department’s criteria that all those considered be dead. Though it’s strange to use the word ‘unfortunately’ in this context, unfortunately, many other notable women are still too alive to qualify, including noted computer programmer Evelyn Boyd Granville and the first African-American woman in space, Dr Mae Jemison.

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Kirsty Tobin was careers editor at Silicon Republic