The campaign to put a new face on the twenty dollar bill—replacing Andrew Jackson with a woman is growing fast. Gail Collins wrote a column about it in the N.Y. Times not long ago and she gives us the link to the official campaign site www.womenon20s.org The argument is that dead white men have monopolized U.S. currency ever since the country
began issuing money and it’s time for a change. We see the familiar faces of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and Andrew Jackson on the bills we use every day. Not a woman in sight!
In this, as in so many other ways, the United States is more conservative than many other countries. Britain, of course, has Elizabeth II on the currency as do many of the countries from the Commonwealth. But they don’t stop with the monarch. Australia has put Nelly Melba, the opera singer, on its currency, Canada honors the first woman judge, Emily Murphy, and of course Argentina has Eva Peron. Denmark has placed the author, Karen Blixen on its currency. Surely it is time that America follows their lead and portrays a woman.
The Women on 20s campaign has a list of candidates to replace Andrew Jackson and they are good ones. There are lots of familiar faces—Eleanor Roosevelt, Susan B. Anthony, Rosa Parks and others. One of my favorites would be Frances Perkins, the first Secretary of Labor under President Franklin Roosevelt. I’ve written about her on this blog before. She was the person most responsible for setting up the Social Security program that has changed the lives of so many older Americans.
Another favorite of mine is Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman elected to Congress and in 1972 became the first African American woman to become a candidate for a major party nomination for President. Throughout her Congressional career, Chisholm worked to improve the lives of people living in the inner city and struggling with poverty and poor job prospects. She pushed through a bill guaranteeing a minimum wage for household workers and supported increases in education and health care.
Both Frances Perkins and Shirley Chisholm worked through the political system, just as the men who are now on our currency have done. Perhaps we should change the scope of the search and look at candidates from entirely different fields. If I had a completely free choice, I think I’d pick a poet—someone who was a little less serious about being in the company of the sober, serious men who inhabit the other currency. How about Emily Dickinson with her confession—
I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us -don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.
If a poet can be nobody, then surely the twenty-dollar bill can be even less important. That’s something that might make us feel better as we see them flying out of our wallets every day. But of course perhaps all of our currency is flying away. As the Apple Watch comes on the scene, none of us may need currency any more. Emily and Andrew as well as George, Abraham, and Ulysses and the bills they represent may be merely historical footnotes as our technological world moves on.
By this time almost everyone who follows the news, whether in print, on a website, or Facebook or Twitter must have heard the news that Saturday, March 14 is Pi Day. Scientific American explains the concept and gives us the history of it. As they write:
If there was ever a year to commemorate Pi Day in a big way, this is it. The date of this Saturday—3/14/15—gives us not just the first three digits (as in most years) but the first five digits of pi, the famous irrational number 3.14159265359… that expresses the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter.
Unfortunately this only works in the U.S. because, Europe, Canada and most other countries write the date putting the day before the month—14/3/15. If only April had 31 days, they could wait for 31/4/15 but alas that will never come.
Aside from eating pie to commemorate the date and taking our children to the local science museum, what else what else can we do to celebrate the importance of math in our lives? Well, we might think about how few girls study math and how few of the world’s famous mathematicians were women. Considering how difficult it has been until very recently for girls to be encouraged to study math, we shouldn’t be too surprised. Women have always had to fight for their education and in many parts of the world they still do.
Take for example, Mary Somerville, born Mary Fairfax in 1780 to a wealthy and prominent family in Scotland. Like most girls, she was given little education at home, although one of her uncles recognized her abilities while she was young. It was only when Mary surprised her brother’s tutor by answering his question when her brother was stumped, that she was allowed to receive some limited tutoring herself. With the help of the tutor she was able to teach herself mathematics. Unfortunately, at the age of 24 she married a distant cousin who was convinced that women had no talent for intellectual work. It wasn’t until after his early death that she was free to pursue her own interests. Fortunately, for her second husband she chose a man, William Somerville, also a cousin of hers, who encouraged her interests and introduced her to intellectual circles in Edinburgh and later in London.
Finally Mary was able to study, learn about several branches of science, as well as raising a family. Her husband, a physician, was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. Of course in those days women were ineligible for membership, but
she was able to use her husband’s access to learn about the society’s scientific activities. She gained fame through writing popular books about science including The Connexion of the Physical Sciences and Physical Geography, both of which were went through numerous editions.
Throughout her long life—she published her last book at the age of 88 and died in 1872 at the age of 91—Mary Somerville kept up her interest in science and writing. She never, however, did original research nor was she encouraged to do so. It was not expected of women. In an obituary for the Royal Astronomical Society, R.A. Proctor wrote “We shall never know certainly…what science lost through the all but utter neglect of the unusual powers of Mary Fairfax’s mind.”On this Pi Day when we celebrate the importance of mathematics, and by extension all of science, it is important to remember that girls are still not studying math and science as often as boys are. It’s time for all of us, parents, teachers, society in general, to recognize that it’s not acceptable to expect women to merely bake the celebratory pies, we need to encourage them to study the importance of pi too.