Women’s History in the Treasury and on U.S. Money

March 01, 2023

Throughout the U.S. Treasury Department’s history, women have helped with the department’s duties via their work and leadership. And women also have appeared on cash and coins produced by Treasury bureaus.

Two 2022 posts published on the Inside FRASER blog offered details on some of the past and future currency that honors women and outlined some of the history of women in the Treasury Department. (FRASER is the St. Louis Fed’s digital library of U.S. economic, financial and banking history.)

The St. Louis Fed’s Economy Museum has some of the historic currency in its collection.

Women Are Represented on Coins and Cash

When do you first remember seeing a woman’s image on U.S. currency?

Gen Xers might recall “the dollar of the future”—the Susan B. Anthony coin released in 1979 by the U.S. Mint, a Treasury Department bureau that designs and manufactures U.S. and other coins.

Two sides of Sacagawea golden dollar

Sacagawea, the Shoshone guide of the 1804-1806 Lewis and Clark expedition, is featured on a U.S. dollar coin issued in 2000. Image courtesy of the U.S. Mint.

The Sacagawea “golden dollar” coin that replaced the Susan B. Anthony coin in 2000 might come first to mind for millennials, while members of Gen Z might be more familiar with quarters now being released as part of the U.S. Mint’s American Women Quarters Program.

The Susan B. Anthony dollar coin was the first circulating coin in the U.S. to feature an actual woman. But women’s appearances on the country’s currency began far earlier, as a June 2022 Inside FRASER blog post explained. Mythical women representing liberty—Columbia and Lady Liberty—appeared on some of the earliest U.S. currency.

1804 half cent and 1891 Liberty dime.

These coins, an 1804 Liberty half cent, left, and an 1891 Liberty dime, are part of the Economy Museum’s rotating collection. The currency on display changes regularly. Visit today to see the current display of items in the exquisite and rare collection.

The Economy Museum has an 1804 Liberty half cent and an 1891 Liberty dime in its collection. The currency on display changes regularly.

Other than such “national personification” figures, Martha Washington, wife of the first U.S. president, was “the first woman in U.S. history to receive major depiction on currency issued by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing,” according to the blog post, which was suggested by Senior Librarian Scott St. Louis. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing designs and manufactures U.S. currency and is part of the Treasury Department.

Martha Washington portrait on a one-dollar silver certificate

This 1886 one-dollar silver certificate is part of the Economy Museum’s rotating collection.

Martha Washington’s portrait appeared on the 1886 and 1891 series of one-dollar silver certificates. Her portrait was used again next to her husband, George, on the back of the 1896 one-dollar note. Martha Washington remained the only woman whose image has been featured prominently on U.S. paper currency, the June 2022 post noted. That still is the case as of the date of publication of this Open Vault blog post. The Economy Museum has Washington 1886 and 1896 notes in its collection.

But as a March 2022 Inside FRASER blog post on women of the Treasury notes, “women have had slightly better representation on coins issued by the U.S. Mint.”

In addition to women’s rights activist Anthony and expedition guide and explorer Sacagawea, honorees have included author and disability rights advocate Helen Keller, who was featured on the Alabama state quarter in 2003 as part of the 50 State Quarters Program.

Honorees on quarters released in 2022 as part of the American Women Quarters Program are:

  • Author Maya Angelou
  • Astronaut Sally Ride
  • Former Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation Wilma Mankiller
  • Suffrage leader Nina Otero-Warren
  • Film star Anna May Wong

Through the program, a total of 15 women are scheduled to be featured on quarters through 2025.

Women Lead in the Treasury Department

Women in the 20th century gained leadership roles in the Treasury Department. “The first woman to serve as director of the U.S. Mint was Nellie Tayloe Ross, appointed in 1933,” according to the March 2022 blog post. Ross served five full terms before retiring in 1953, according to the “guest” post, which was drawn from a presentation by U.S. Department of the Treasury librarians Kim Carter and Andy Young.

Collage of four black-and-white photos and one color photo of women in styles from the 1930s to the 2020s.

Historic women of the U.S. Mint and Treasury, from left: Nellie Tayloe Ross, Georgia Neese Clark Gray, Romana Acosta Bañuelos, Azie Taylor Morton and Janet Yellen. Collage from the March 2022 Inside FRASER blog post.

The post noted firsts for women of the Treasury:

  • Georgia Neese Clark was the first woman appointed to the position of treasurer in 1949.
  • Romana Acosta Bañuelos became the first Hispanic treasurer in 1971.
  • Azie Taylor Morton became the only Black person to be treasurer in 1977.
  • Janet Yellen became the first woman secretary of the Treasury in 2021.

Women Start Work in the Treasury

But before women could get to historic roles at the top, their predecessors started on the bottom rungs of Treasury Department job ladders in the nation’s early years.

The first women hired were Sarah Waldrake and Rachael Summers, who started work in 1795 as “adjusters.” They weighed coins and filed them if needed to make the coins the right weight. And they made 50 cents a day, compared with the $1.20 and 88 cents wages of three male counterparts with the same job title, according to an image in the March 2022 blog post. The image, from the 1887 “Illustrated History of the United States Mint,” listed wages and titles for workers in the Chief Coiner’s Department.

A black-and-white drawing shows female employees in long full skirts leaving a building on a rainy evening.

A drawing of “Lady clerks leaving the Treasury Department at Washington” sketched by A.R. Waud appeared in Harper’s Weekly in February 1865. Image courtesy of the Alice Marshall Women’s History Collection.

Later, during the Civil War, about 400 women worked for the Treasury. They mostly served as counterfeit inspectors or wielded scissors as “currency trimmers.”  

From those modest beginnings, women’s historic roles in the Treasury—and on U.S. currency—grew.

About the Author
Heather Hennerich
Heather Hennerich

Heather Hennerich is a senior editor with the St. Louis Fed External Engagement and Corporate Communications Division.

Heather Hennerich
Heather Hennerich

Heather Hennerich is a senior editor with the St. Louis Fed External Engagement and Corporate Communications Division.

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This blog explains everyday economics, consumer topics and the Fed. It also spotlights the people and programs that make the St. Louis Fed central to America’s economy. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the St. Louis Fed or Federal Reserve System.

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