Earlier this week, the Royal Canadian Mint revealed to the world its newest commemorative silver coin, inscribed with “5 dollars,” but retailing for $69.95. Meant as a keepsake, according to the Mint’s president, it celebrates Nobel Prize-winning author Alice Munro’s “tremendous body of work.” The coin depicts a female figure materializing from a pen who embraces herself in front of an open book with a quote from Munro’s The View from Castle Rock:
And in one of these houses — I can’t remember whose — a magic doorstop, a big mother-of-pearl seashell that I recognized as a messenger from near and far, because I could hold it to my ear — when nobody was there to stop me — and discover the tremendous pounding of my own blood, and of the sea. (appearing in English and in French).
Having seen this news, some people may have mistakenly concluded that the Nobel Prize-winning Munro had passed away. In the U.S. (where I live), for example, the law prohibits the placement of images associated with living individuals on circulating coins, a tradition that seems to have developed as one way of differentiating ourselves from the British Empire, which had its monarch’s profile all over its currency (and still does).
Even in the U.S., though, a commemorative coin like the one Canada is producing in honor of Munro can depict a living person. The purpose of a commemorative coin is to celebrate or honor a particular person or event, often with the intention of raising money. Munro, touted as the “master of the contemporary short story,” is certainly an author worth celebrating. For one thing, she is one of only 13 women (out of 110 winners) to receive the Nobel Prize in literature.
So, does it mean something for gender equality to honor Munro with a coin?
Maybe, though (1) it may be less meaningful in a country like Canada, which has the effigy of a queen on most of its circulating change and on its $20 bill; (2) the design overemphasizes the female body; and (3) it’s just a coin–a non-circulating one at that. However, at least it draws attention to the achievements of a woman who has excelled in an otherwise hostile literary world, hopefully encouraging other women to persevere as they navigate similar challenges.
I’ve been thinking about this issue ever since the news broke last summer that Jane Austen had “ousted” Charles Darwin on the British £10 note. Many praised the decision; some said that it was a “victory for campaigners demanding female representation – aside from the Queen – on the country’s cash.”
While I love Jane Austen’s novels–and I think men should appreciate them as much as women do–I highly doubt her appearance on cash is such a significant “victory” for sex equality. The acceptance of these coins as currency may reflect progressive attitudes, but it doesn’t do much to instill these attitudes in an otherwise biased population. That’s what a couple of American examples suggest.
Remember Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea? Anthony, a social reformer and suffragist, and Sacagawea (Sakakawea), a Shoshone Indian guide to the Lewis and Clark expedition, have both appeared on U.S. dollar coins, a historically unpopular denomination.
The U.S. Mint has tried several times to interest Americans in replacing dollar bills with dollar coins, which, if used, are more cost-effective. After almost forty years without a dollar coin, the U.S. began issuing President Eisenhower dollar coins from 1971 to 1978. Then, from 1979-81 and again in 1999, the Mint issued Susan B. Anthony dollar coins. In 2000, Sacagawea took over as the token woman on circulating U.S. currency until Helen Keller joined her as the reverse design on Alabama’s circulating commemorative quarter in 2003.
While I imagine that the Alabama quarter with Helen Keller is just as successful as any other quarter, the Anthony and Sacagawea dollars have been spectacular failures. People just don’t like to use them, despite all the U.S. Mint’s research into designing a palatable coin and despite the fact that the representation of Sacagawea with her child comports with stereotypes of women as mothers. To some degree, it almost feels like a slight that, apart from the Alabama quarter (which is one of 50 designs), female representation on U.S. currency is solely on a marginalized coin.
In the hopes of increasing the popularity of dollar coins (without taking the step of removing dollar bills from circulation), the U.S. Congress passed a law in 2005 to issue $1 coins with dead presidents on them in addition to Sacagawea. Many of these coins just stayed in vaults (I’ve never seen one in circulation).
So, what’s the problem?
Consciously, I think most people would say the problem is that Americans are just reluctant to accept a dollar coin. We are creatures of habit, and it’s easier to fit dollar bills in our pockets than dollar coins. The failure of all $1 coins in the US–Eisenhower, Anthony, Sacagawea, and the Presidents–would support that position. However, Eisenhower would obviously struggle to gain acceptance after so many decades without a $1 coin, and, at least according to NPR’s Planet Money, there actually had been some demand for the presidential $1 coins–But not for Sacagawea.
Indeed, NPR’s Planet Money went so far as to place the blame for the failure of the $1 coin on Sacagawea, specifically focusing on the part of the 2005 law that required production of one Sacagawea coin for every four presidential coins when Sacagawea was so unpopular (check out the podcast, starting at 15 minutes).
The snide NPR Planet Money hosts have left me thinking that it isn’t just American inability to adapt that has caused the failure of the $1 coin. Rather, it may be the association of the $1 coin with women (including a non-white one) that has led to its current degree of unpopularity. Implicit bias –“a positive or negative mental attitude towards a person, thing, or group that a person holds at an unconscious level”– is, by definition, more pernicious than people realize. It could be that the perpetual failure of dollar coins in the U.S. is an offshoot of that old stereotype that “women just aren’t good with money.”
The test is whether Americans would switch entirely to electronic financial transactions if we put Sacagawea or another woman on our dollar bills!