An Extremely Brief History of Women on U.S. Paper Currency

Martha Washington.

The Treasury Department's announcement this week that it will redesign the $10 bill to feature a woman's portrait is historic. When the new note is revealed in 2020, it will be the first time in more than 100 years a female's face has been honored on America's paper currency.

The last time (essentially the only time) was during a stretch of years in the 1880s and 1890s, when Martha Washington — most famous for being the wife of George — appeared on a $1 silver certificate.

The bill was issued in 1886 and was discontinued by the turn of the century. According to the archives of The Washington Star, they were "probably the prettiest notes ever issued by the government." Martha's portrait, the paper noted, was "beautifully executed." See for yourself in the image above.

Today, according to, these bills are worthy collectables, which fetch between $75 and $1,000, if "there are absolutely no folds" and if "the seal is bright red and the other colors and paper are both crisp. Antique Money advises being discerning in evaluating the bills: "At first glance, a lot of Marthas will look this way."

(A search of historical newspaper accounts does not reveal why Mrs. Washington was chosen for the bill.)

The only other time a woman has been featured on U.S. paper currency was in the 1860s, when Native American Pocahontas appeared on the backside of a $20 bill (a lot of money then!). Women have been more commonly featured on U.S. coins: the Susan B. Anthony dollar coin, the Sacagawea dollar coin, and Helen Keller's appearance on an Alabama special-issue quarter.

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It has been so long since a woman has been on paper currency in the United States that we are now in an age where scholars debate whether paper money should be phased out entirely. It's one of our most visible forums to honor a person's memory. The Treasury is seeking public input on who to put on the new $10 bill. With more than 200 years of history to sort through, it shouldn't be too hard to find worthy candidates.

Images via