“Women & Money Don’t Mix”–Even When the Woman is on the Coin

US Coins_Misfortune of Knowing Blog

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!

18 thoughts on ““Women & Money Don’t Mix”–Even When the Woman is on the Coin

  1. gerkinkerfluffle

    Some studies have shown that, when a person makes a conscious effort to avoid a potential bias — and I mean any sort of “bias,” from invidious discrimination to cognitive blindspots, like ‘confirmation bias’ — then there’s usually successful in doing it, and their “implicit bias” disappears from testing.

    But it takes a conscious step to get rid of the bias, and no one really thinks about their money, they just use it. It’s thus just the very sort of “thoughtless” task where a person’s implicit biases will charge forward at full steam. Compare the minimal thought applied to monetary preferences to this study from two years ago in which scientists had a completely different view of lab manager applications depending on if the applicable was male or female: http://goo.gl/qZHCF

    That’s a context where there will be presumably some consideration of the merits of what’s on the paper, and there’s still tons of bias against women for nothing more than the name on the page. For money I’d bet it’s just pure implicit bias all the time, because no one thinks about it much. The dimwit hosting the NPR segment shows that — despite spending a lot of time on the subject, he thinks it’s comical that there might be some reason to put someone other than a white man on the currency, and can’t understand it when a former Congressman gently tries to explain it to him.

  2. In the UK they took away our £1 coins by force. The coins, in both £1 and £2 denominations are part of everyday life now but it does make the purse heavier and, somehow a coin doesn’t seem as valuable as a note so it feels like it’s devalued the pound to me. I don’t really think the faces on the coins or the notes make any difference, couldn’t even tell you who is on any of ours except the Queen,

  3. I’m with Debbie. In the UK too they moved from £1 notes to coin without a murmur. Just do it. People will grumble for a day and will then move on. (In Jersey we’ve retained the note but not because of any outcry against change). And the Queen is on all of them and I don’t think anyone would notice or care if that changed.
    Slightly off the point, but still relevant, Dublin’s newest bridge over the Liffey – the 24th – has become the first named after a woman, Rosie Hackett 🙂

  4. I do remember the coins, except Helen Keller on the reverse of the Alabama quarter in 2003. For heaven’s sake it is all just money and who is on it should not matter for use, but it is the mint’s fault for putting the women on unpopular coins – the dollar which was easily confused with a quarter being not much bigger. If a woman replaced Washington or Lincoln, maybe then they would get some real acceptance.

    1. Yeah, I don’t really remember seeing Helen Keller on the back of the Alabama quarter, but it’s hard to remember each design. There are so many! The $1 coins are more memorable for me.

      It would be nice if they put women on more popular currency–or removed inefficient $1 bills from circulation and just forced the American public to accept a woman on our coins. It may sound silly that bias against women could play a role in what coins are popular, but the other arguments against the $1 coin don’t hold up. Few people tolerate lots of $1 bills in their wallets (so the weight of coins won’t be a huge problem) and we were able to accept the new designs that make our bills look like monopoly money. Americans can adjust to these types of changes. So, it really might be that implicit sex bias is playing a role in the persistent unpopularity of the $1 coin–with the Sacagawea coins being less popular than the ones with men. Implicit bias is so pernicious largely because people don’t think it exists.

  5. debbierodgers

    Although I wasn’t part of the “experiment”, I don’t think Americans’ reluctance to accept dollar coins had anything to do with what appeared or didn’t appear on them.

    I was part of the grand Canadian experience of rolling out dollar coins – our now beloved “loonies”, so named for the bird represented on them. People hated them, said they’d never use them, said they’d hoard dollar bills, and on and on. But we were given no choice – and you know what? The world as we knew it didn’t end, we didn’t all die; our financial system didn’t screech to a halt; we didn’t even wear out our pockets carrying around all those coins since we actually spent them (what a novel idea!) and we were often pleasantly surprised when we thought we were broke, because we were out of folding money, to find seven or eight bucks in our wallets in coins.

    When the two dollar coin – dubbed the “toonie”, was introduced, most Canadians welcomed it enthusiastically. It wears barely more than the loonie and is worth double so we often find riches in double digits hiding in pockets and bags.

    People are creatures of habit and usually won’t or don’t change if they’re given a choice. Until the U.S. Mint withdraws the paper single, dollar coins will flop regardless of whose image is on it.

    1. Thank you for adding this perspective! It’s very interesting to hear how Canada rolled out the “loonie.” It would certainly help us accept dollar coins if the US stopped producing dollar bills. However, I do wonder whether having a woman on the coin would matter more in the US than in Canada, which is accustomed to having a queen on its currency. From what I’ve heard–and the US Mint is free to correct me if I’m wrong (I’m basing this information on the NPR podcast)–all $1 coins are unpopular, but not *equally* unpopular. The Sacagawea ones are even less popular than the men, who were chosen specifically to improve the odds that these coins would be used. Perhaps it’s the gold color… but I doubt it. Thanks again for your comment!

  6. People couldn’t tell the difference between quarter and dollar and so they didn’t like it. Imagine trying to carry around a hundred bucks in coins, too. *snicker* Not convenient. I prefer the dirty, germ-ridden paper money over coins.

    1. It will take Americans some amount of time to wean off bills. I think the Susan B. Anthony looked a lot like a quarter, but the Sacagawea one doesn’t. There was a pretty big push to get the Sacagawea coins to circulate, but people just seem repulsed by it. I get them on occasion, but only when I ride public transportation.

        1. Hmmm… I’m not sure which coin had the eight beveled edges. There definitely was a lot of thought that went into differentiating the Sacagawea $1 coin from other coins, but it seems like there were also limitations that forced the coin to resemble at least previous $1 coins (which resembled quarters!). The color and feel from the quarter makes the Sacagawea coin seem different to me, though.

          This is what Corinne Wu, writing for Science News (April 1, 2000), said about it: “The Sacagawea coin has the same luster as 14-carat gold… It has a wider border than other coins and a plain, smooth edge just like the nickel… It is slightly larger than the quarter… Testing done by the mint shows that consumers, both sighted and visually impaired, can pick out the coin by feel without trouble.” However, Wu also wrote in the article that the Sacagawea coin had to be similar enough to the Susan B. Anthony coin that vending machines would be able to recognize it and treat them the same way.

            1. I hope you’re right that the gender of the person on the coin makes no difference, but I wonder about the role of implicit bias when the Sacagawea $1 coin is less popular than other $1 coins. They are all unpopular, but not *equally* so (at least according to the NPR podcast). I really couldn’t believe how snide the hosts of Planet Money were toward Sacagawea.

    2. debbierodgers

      Theo, if you have a hundred dollars in your wallet, how much of that is in singles? Probably not most – and that’s the way it would be with dollar coins too.

        1. Same here! Most of my bills are higher denominations. It really shouldn’t be so difficult for Americans to transition to $1 coins when we think about the small # of $1 bills we actually carry around. That’s part of why I think the argument that the coins are burdensome is pretext for something else (not that I think *everyone* who avoids it is subconsciously biased against women–just that there are enough people who hold these biases to keep the Sacagawea coin unpopular and therefore difficult to use).

  7. The dollar coin is problematic, and a poor place for Female representation. It’s so like the quarter, and since it’s not widely used it is confusing. I use them mainly on St. Patrick’s day (the leprechaun leaves ‘golden coins’ for my kids) but otherwise, I never pay for anything with them.
    I seem to remember as a kid being given the Eisenhower dollars (the bigger ones) for things like good report cards, as tooth fairy swag, or just outright ‘get lost’ bribes from uncles and older cousins. So I think they had some popularity, at some point. But then the Susan B. Anthony dollars were so small, and so much like a quarter, and I guess I got too old for those kinds of things anyway.
    I think a better place for a woman’s portrait would be on high denomination paper bills. Sure, they’re even less used than the dollar coin, but I’m sure they wouldn’t lose any popularity 🙂

    1. Yeah, the Susan B. Anthony one looks too much like a quarter. The Mint did research into designing the Sacagawea coin, and, at least in my opinion, the result doesn’t look very much like a quarter. People still refuse to use it. At least according to the NPR podcast, the Sacagawea coin seems to be less popular than other $1 coins. So, the problem can’t be just that $1 coins are unpopular. There’s something particular about the Sacagawea coin that makes people avoid it. It would be interesting if we put a woman on a higher denomination bill (or any bill). My question would be whether that’s when more people will make the switch to doing all transactions electronically!

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