Wherever you are in the world, chances are that if you open your wallet and pull out the first bill you see, you’ll probably be looking at an image of a man. The appearance of women on banknotes began hundreds of years ago, but is still relatively uncommon with approximately 92% of banknotes depicting men while just 8% of worldwide notes depict a woman. What is the reason for this discrepancy and how is it being addressed? This resource article discusses a history of women appearing on currency around the world, examines what famous women appear on the currency of today and offers a glimpse into what female faces we might see on the banknotes of tomorrow.
A History of Women on Banknotes
Throughout history, female leaders have appeared primarily on coinage as a means either of asserting their influence as leaders, or commemorating their leadership posthumously. The pharaoh, Cleopatra VII, Empress Maria of Austria and Queen Elizabeth I of England all issued coins depicting their own image as a way of spreading their power and influence throughout the world. In modernity, women are more likely to end up on banknotes posthumously. Strong and influential leaders Eva Perón and Indira Gandhi appeared on the 100 peso note (Argentina) and the 5-rupee coin (India) respectively as a mean of commemorating their lives and leadership. Despite the strong contributions which women have made throughout history, they are still disproportionately represented on currency around the world.
Women on Money Today
Although women are more commonly being featured on banknotes around the world, there are still many countries that have not yet ever featured a woman on their currency. Cuba, Barbados, India, Jordan, Singapore, Thailand, Armenia, China, Hungary and Croatia are all countries that have never featured on woman on their bills. Still, there are many contemporary appearances of women on banknotes around the world:
- Syria – The Syrian 500-pound note features the likeness of Queen Zenobia who famously fought back against Roman colonizers in the second century AD. Although Syria lacks the image of a “progressive” nation due to recent conflict, they certainly know how to honor their key historical matriarchs.
- Philippines – A 500-peso note was produced in the mid-1980s depicting a prominent senator who had been assassinated in 1983. His wife, Corazon Aquino, later became the first female president of the Philippines and her likeness was added to the 500-pound note alongside his in 2009.
- New Zealand – The $20 note in New Zealand features the likeness of Queen Elizabeth II – that’s not surprising, but what might surprise you can be found on the Kiwi $10 note. There you’ll find an image of Kate Sheppard, activist and suffragette whose work in the late 1800s made New Zealand the first country with absolute voting rights for both men and women.
- Israel – It was recently announced that two famous female Israeli writers would be added to the 20 and 100-shekel notes: Rachel Bluwstein, and Leah Goldberg.
- Sweden – Sweden is one of the most equitable nations when it comes to printing women’s faces on money. Swedish krona already includes depictions of Selma Lagerlof – the first woman to win the Nobel prize in literature, and opera singer Jenny Lind. A new line of banknotes now features ‘Pippi Longstocking’ author Astrid Lindgren and an assortment of other famous women Swedes.
- Australia – Australia has come up with a revolutionary new way of depicting its nation’s female heroes on currency. Each banknote that Australia produces includes an image of a famous man on one side and one of a famous woman on the other side! In this way, Australia is able to honour more of its heroes (and heroines) and keep things equitable and inclusive.
Upcoming Women on Banknotes
At the time of writing, there are two major announcements to feature women on significant global currencies for the first time. In the United States, Harriet Tubman will replace Andrew Jackson on the twenty-dollar note.
Tubman was an activist who single-handedly rescued hundreds of black slaves from Southern plantations, guiding them on foot through the “Underground Railroad” to safety and liberation in the Northern USA and Canada. This will be the first major change to American currency in almost a century.
In Canada, black activist and civil rights pioneer Viola Desmond will be the first Canadian woman depicted on a banknote since Queen Elizabeth II. Desmond challenged racial segregation after being arrested for sitting in the “whites only” section of a Halifax theatre in 1946. She will be featured on the Canadian $10 bill.
Update: The Viola Desmond banknote was released in 2018 and won banknote of the year!
The history of women on money extends over 2000 years into the past, but with the number of different banknotes available today around the world, it is somewhat surprising that more women aren’t featured prominently on the currencies of the nations they unselfishly served. As equality grows around the world, it is likely that women everywhere will have more and more opportunity to distinguish themselves and to receive this great honor.