Beginning with the 2020 print run, the ten dollar bill will boast a new face — the first woman on paper currency since Martha Washington and Pocahontas graced nineteenth-century notes. Alongside the bust of Alexander Hamilton — creative ways to keep him around are in the works — will go a still-unchosen woman who will be named later this year, once U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has listened to the people in deference to the American love of public opinion.
Rachel Carson (1907 – 1964)
A literary-minded marine biologist and nature-writer with an eye for the most complex, overlooked corners of the country, Carson had a knack for the kind of quiet, far-reaching internologue and adventure-seeking that makes up some of the US’s finest writing — with coverage from sea to shining sea. Passages like this from her first book in 1941, Under the Sea Wind:A Naturalist’s Picture of Ocean Life: “Leaping and racing, foaming and swirling, the incoming flood brought release to the myriads of small fishes that had been imprisoned on the pond. Now in thousands they poured out of the pond and out of the marshes. They raced in mad confusion to meet the clean, cold water,” set her apart as an environmental conservation leader. In 1962, two years before her death, her Silent Spring spawned a populist movement and the subsequent creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In 1980, then-President Jimmy Carter awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom — “Never silent herself in the face of destructive trends, Rachel Carson fed a spring of awareness across America and beyond,” he cried — a second posthumous national honor would be just the thing.
Annie Easley (1933 – 2011)
While no women astronaut has yet landed on a dollar bill, names like Sally Ride, Judith Resnik, Laurel B. Clark, and Kalpana Chawla (the latter three tragically eligible for the honor because of space disasters) are strong currency in popular American lore. Enter their earthly counterpart: Annie Easley, who made their intragalactic journeys possible. Easley stepped into NACA (NASA’s precursor) straight from high school, becoming a human calculator for the logarithms, exponentials, and square roots works that were then performed by hand with the aid of computers capable only of basic arithmetic. During her thirty-four years at both agencies, she was a rocket scientist, a mathematician, and a computer scientist who helped develop the Centaur Rocket software, the tech base for space shuttle launches, military and weather satellites, and the Cassini probe’s 1997 flight to Saturn. Throw in her research that was later used to create hybrid-car batteries, and we have a celestial mix of hard-working American can-do, freedom of intellectual development, and the types of images (think rockets, ringed planets, chic NASA workwear) that are the right icons for a mid-twenty-first-century nation.
Elizabeth Blackwell (1821 – 1910)
Before there was physician-suffragette Mary Putnam Jacobi, there was her mentor, the irascible, unstoppable Elizabeth Blackwell, who was one of the first women to earn a medical degree in the United States. Blackwell’s medically minded predecessors were not left out from lack of trying: she undertook private anatomy classes while being turned away from medical school after medical school in Philadelphia and fielding advice from contemporary physicians to study abroad or pretend to be a man. After being accepted to New York’s Geneva Medical School as a practical joke, she then used the degree she ultimately earned to make her way into hospitals in Paris and London, becoming a professor of gynecology, and then opening her own practice in New York — the still-successful New York Downtown Hospital. Not content with deed alone, she wrote a memoir, too, the helpful, novelistic Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women. “Do no harm” and “Know thyself” would make fine mottos on either side of this long-overdue redone ten-note.
Bernice Ackerman (1925 – 1995)
In a nation of weather-obsessives enthralled with fast-moving storm-system graphs, the latest weather-pocalypse, and of course, prediction of a system notoriously difficult to predict, Bernice Ackerman, the States’s first woman weather forecaster and Argonne National Laboratory’s first woman meteorologist would serve as an ongoing reminder of national perseverance. From her meteo-training in WAVES, once the U.S. Navy’s women’s arm, to weather observer and flight briefer during World War II, to forty years as a research scientist and teacher of all things meteorological, her legacy gathered force at the U.S. Weather Bureau and university weather-think tanks like the Cloud Physics Laboratory. While there, she wrote papers on weather balloons, turbulence, and fluid mechanics in rural and in urban areas, the stuff of high tech-know-how and source of wondering inspiration for today’s weather-focused citizen scientists.
Alicia and John Nash (1933 – 2015; 1928 – 2015)
The sum of the smarts between this twice-married duo is bested only by the kind of love, devotion, and determination that can overcome a disease like schizophrenia and win an Economic Sciences Nobel prize in the meantime. Alicia’s work in physics earned her an MIT degree in 1995 as one of sixteen women among hundreds of men, an achievement that was overshadowed by her husband and their son’s need for mental health care. Undeterred, she attended to them while becoming a mental-health advocate, delivering keynote speeches around the country and winning the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression Luminary Award in 2005. They died together in a car crash this May, the final part of our argument for the first couple to make a U.S. paper currency official.
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