A Worthy Tribute To A Woman Of Firsts

Maine’s Margaret Chase Smith was the first woman to serve in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate. She was the first woman to have her name placed into nomination for President by a major party. During most of her 23-year tenure, she was the only woman in the Senate, and her service broke barriers and opened doors for generations of women to come.

What better tribute could our nation pay to this remarkable woman of so many firsts than to make Margaret Chase Smith the first woman to have her portrait featured on our nation’s paper currency?

The U.S. Treasury is currently in the process of selecting a woman for this distinction who was a “champion for our inclusive democracy.” I have written to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew urging him to give full consideration to making Margaret Chase Smith the new face of America’s $20 bill.

Margaret Chase Smith was more than a woman of firsts – she was a leader of integrity and courage. As a freshman Senator in 1950, she boldly spoke out against the excesses of Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin in her famous “Declaration of Conscience” speech. She forcefully defended the right of all Americans to think for themselves and to hold unpopular beliefs. Her Declaration of Conscience was the beginning of the end for Senator McCarthy’s small-minded reign of terror. Standing up to that bully was extraordinarily brave at the time, but it was typical of Senator Smith’s courageous and independent spirit.

Margaret Chase Smith was also instrumental in cementing the crucial role women play as an integral part of our Armed Services. As a lifelong advocate of women’s contributions to our nation’s defense, one of Margaret Chase Smith’s earliest legislative accomplishments was her leading role in the passage of the Women’s Armed Forces Integration Act, which ensured that women serving our nation were treated as part of the regular Army (and received regular Army benefits) as opposed to reserves or volunteers.

So many women of my generation were inspired to public service by Margaret Chase Smith, including myself. I had the privilege of meeting her during a visit to Washington when I was a senior at Caribou High School and was participating in the Senate Youth Program in Washington. I expected our meeting to be a quick handshake and a photograph, but we talked for nearly two hours.

We discussed many important issues and she answered my many questions, but what I remember most was her telling me always to stand tall for what I believed. Although I couldn't have known it at the time, that meeting was the first step in a journey that led me to the U.S. Senate 25 years later. I am proud to hold the seat once held by a woman who made such a difference, and it is truly an honor to sit in her desk on the Senate floor.

At present, the $20 bill features President Andrew Jackson. The grassroots movement to replace his portrait with that of a woman is driven by the discomfort many Americans rightly have of President’s Jackson’s legacy as a slaveowner and with his anti-Native American policies that led to the Trail of Tears. It is worth noting that President Jackson himself was a replacement on the $20 bill – for President Grover Cleveland in 1928 – in recognition of the centennial of his inauguration. In addition, it is ironic that President Jackson is featured on any bill, as he was a vehement opponent of government-issued paper money.

Despite popular support for a new $20 bill, the Treasury Department says the $10 bill is next in line for replacement in Treasury’s currency cycle. So far, Treasury resists breaking that cycle to put a woman’s portrait on the $20 bill.

I have asked Secretary Lew to reconsider that position. Surely Treasury can find a way to adjust its currency cycle to acknowledge this critical role by placing the portrait of a woman on the $20 bill and thus avoid stripping Alexander Hamilton of his appropriate place on the $10 bill.

Alexander Hamilton came to the United States as an orphaned immigrant, and his energy and intellect fueled his meteoric rise in step with the growth of the nation. He was a hero of the Revolutionary War, and the author of the majority of the essays that made up The Federalist Papers that argued for the adoption of our Constitution. Most significantly, as our nation’s first Treasury Secretary, Hamilton created an environment that eventually led to America’s emergence as the world’s economic powerhouse. Secretary Hamilton’s portrait should remain on the $10 bill.

Women have played a critical role in the social, cultural, economic, and political life of our country since its founding and continue to shape American society for the better today. Margaret Chase Smith exemplifies the important role women have played throughout our nation’s history. When she was asked about a woman’s “proper place,” she put it best: “Everywhere!”

I would add: “including on the $20 bill!”