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The $7.80 Dollar Bill — Women on the $10 Bill Is Just More Under-Compensation

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Even in my single-digit years, I really wanted a job. It didn’t matter what it was – teacher, waitress, office assistant – pretty much as soon as I figured out that I needed money to obtain more beanie babies, and money was acquired through having a job, I wanted in on the game. I asked my dad about it, and he explained to me that I had to work for money. He said it was something a person earned.

“So let me work, then,” I said.

“School is your work,” he answered.

“Well, OK. Pay me for school.”

“That’s not…” he started, stopped, and sighed. “…No.”

I told him the job system was rigged, and he told me to go to bed because I was giving him a headache. This is how my father and I spent most of my formative years, actually: eternally locked in a battle of “pay me for school because I want money” pitted hopelessly against his “no, that’s not how any of this works. Go to your room; I’m trying to watch the news.”

It wasn’t until the summer after my sophomore year of high school that I finally got my wish. On and off for three months in the middle of a humid, flesh-melting southern summer, I was paid to help install double-paned windows inside the cavernous, suburban homes of Houston, Texas. I earned $100 a day, and I worked on a per house (per project) basis. While it was incredibly uninspiring work, I got to punch out the glass from the old windows with my fist and snoop through strangers’ homes without it being illegal. Plus, I walked away at the end of every day with cash.

When you first start working, a stack of paper money is one of the most gratifying feelings in the world. I can’t say I ever had a moment though, while watching various monetary denominations pile up in my sock drawer, that I wondered where all my girls were at. Lincolns, Jacksons, Hamiltons – it didn’t matter to me. Money was money. During the summer, I worked with a male boss and male colleagues punching out windows, and during the school year, I was a sound technician for the theater department with several other male technicians. As only girl with two brothers, I had been long accustomed to male representation in both positions of authority and of equal status. Being the only girl didn’t faze me, in fact – it was preferred. It made me different, which made me special. And being special is a good thing, right?

Well, maybe special is the wrong word, but I was special. I was the 67% kind of special. When I succeeded the graduating male senior as the lead sound technician my junior year of high school, I found out that he had been making $15 an hour to my newly offered $10. At first I was confused – the job hadn’t changed, why had the pay? After I presented an argument on the matter, the school administrator explained to me, in that careful, measured sort of way I’m lamentably familiar with now, that the rules had changed, and that no one would be making $15 an hour anymore.

He said there wasn’t anything to be done; it was just the way it was going to be. I accepted this answer, and I did the job to the best of my abilities. I figured I should be happy to have the $10 an hour that I had been offered because $10 an hour was better than nothing. I wanted to work so I could earn money, and I had found someone willing to pay me. All of my experience to that date had left me with a single conclusion: just be grateful for what you can get. I was 67% special, and any opportunity I could trick someone into giving me should be considered good fortune.

It didn’t occur to me until much later on in life that I might have been able to circumvent some of the obstacles I faced on the road to professional confidence and self-respect if I had been surrounded with more female representation as a child. If I had been stacking up Tubmans instead of Jacksons next to my spirit socks, would it have felt more natural to seek employment in the STEM fields I was interested in? Would my employers have been more inclined to pay me a full rate if Harriet Beecher Stowe had been just as equally celebrated as George Washington? If I hadn’t watched the media marginalize both Hillary Clinton and Monica Lewinski during President Clinton’s cheating scandal, would I have known inherently that I didn’t deserve to be marginalized either?

In 2009, about five years after my first encounter with the wage gap, the US House of Representatives approved a bill called the Paycheck Fairness Act, written to be an extension of the laws created by the Equal Pay Act of 1963. Less than a year later, it fell dormant on the floor of the US Senate. The bill had three major components: to make wages more transparent, require businesses to prove that wage discrepancies were tied to legitimate qualifications and not gender, and prohibit companies from retaliating against employees who raise concerns about gender-based wage discrimination. Two more times the bill was presented to the Senate, in 2012 and 2014, and two more times it died under the inexplicably obtuse weight of a Republican filibuster. Critics of the Paycheck Fairness Act argue that the wage gap exists for a multitude of reasons, and can not be blamed entirely on gender discrimination. It’s said that the bill gives employees the unjust opportunity to blame their poor negotiating skills on gender discrimination, instead of taking ownership for being bad at asking for more money. As someone who had been asking for money since the age of 6, I can promise it wasn’t my negotiating skills that lost me that $5 an hour. Insofar as I could see, the wage gap existed because that’s just how it was going to be.

So a few months ago, when the US Treasury declared that, in 2020, they would put a woman’s portrait on the new printing of the $10 bill, my eyes began to roll in that way that my mom used to tell me they’d get stuck if I didn’t cut it out. I had just watched Ellen Pao lose her gender discrimination case in Silicon Valley, and I had just finished lamenting Time Magazine’s botched attempt to ban the word “feminist” from our 2015 vocabulary. And here comes the Treasury Department to save the day and give us all hope for a better future. <Insert Heroic Trumpet Noise Here> In true American fashion, the timing and choice of bill for this breakthrough in gender equality is wholly a matter of convenience, and therefore almost entirely inconsequential; 2020 was already set as the year for the new printing, and the $10 was already set as the bill to be redesigned.

The media, doing what the media does best, immediately heralded this announcement as a win for gender equality and the women of the United States. Finally, progress was being made. The Daily Show, doing what The Daily Show does best, immediately heralded this as, “Who cares? No one even carries cash anymore.” For weeks following this news, countless people asked me who I thought should be on the bill, and every time I asked them the same question in return: What does it matter? It’s only going to be worth $7.80 anyway.

I sound pessimistic, I know. It’s not that I don’t think it’s a cool idea, but my point is this: If women still won’t be paid the same as men for doing the same work in our country, does the face on the money actually count as progress?

Progress in political and social movements is hard to measure from the middle. The successes are minor, advancements are halting, and often it feels that for every step forward, we’re digging our heels in the dirt to keep from moving two steps back. For every Sheryl Sandberg who leans in, we watch an Ellen Pao get pushed out. I don’t believe for one second that we shouldn’t bother with increasing the representation of women in our culture, because the very concept of equality demands it. What I believe is that we shouldn’t allow this occurrence, whether it be progress or not, to assuage our frustrations with the wage gap and the existence of gender inequality in our culture and in our workplace. If Eleanor Roosevelt ends up in my wallet, then great, but that isn’t nearly enough.

Mark Ruffalo wrote an open letter on his Tumblr account this year to the girls and women posting images and messages for the “Women Against Feminism” campaign. In his letter, he reminds us of the women who fought for the basic freedoms we have today, freedoms taken for granted by most of the Women Against Feminism contributors, such as the right to own property, to vote, to divorce, even to work. He remarked that claiming to be against feminism was spitting on their legacies, on everything they fought to acquire, if not for themselves, for us. I don’t recommend spending much time on the Women Against Feminism hashtag or Tumblr accounts, especially not if you have a history of rage blackouts, because the majority of it is uniformed, contradictory nonsense. (“I don’t need feminism because I believe men and women are equal.” I’m going to start buying dictionaries in bulk and mailing them out like penny saver flyers one of these days.) In the last 100 years, those who have marched before us have established foundations on which to stand, but not to rest. Whether or not we call the new face on the $10 bill progress is as inconsequential as the Treasury Department’s timing. If anything, we should use it only as another step in the on-going fight to actualize gender equality.

In a piece for the New York Times that David Brooks wrote, entitled, “The Moral Bucket List,” he offers the concept that people of genuine character have committed themselves to a task that is greater than what can be achieved in a single lifetime. He says, to fight for something that is greater than the span of our own mortality requires a web of relationships, of support, and of unconditional loves.

This individualist worldview suggests that character is this little iron figure of willpower inside. But people on the road to character understand that no person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own. Individual will, reason and compassion are not strong enough to consistently defeat selfishness, pride and self-deception. We all need redemptive assistance from outside.

Maybe that’s what the new $10 bill can give us: a source of continued connectedness. It will be a link that joins us to the suffragettes who were imprisoned, force-fed, and beaten for demanding a political voice equal to their male peers, a link to the 28 women who banded together in 1967 to form the National Organization for Women, and a link for future generations to our Hillary Clintons, to our Ellen Paos, to all of us who know that this is a fight worth fighting, even if we never get to see the win.

One of my greatest joys in life, still, is to work – though not for the superficial, monetary reasons as before. I work because I believe in what I do, because I believe it serves a greater purpose, and because I want to contribute to establishing a normalcy that represents all walks of life. I work to be that female representation that I lacked. In all likelihood, my work will never be more than a small wave in the ocean, but I will fight to be part of the current that pushes our culture towards a new future, where ten dollars is ten dollars to anyone, no matter who is on the bill, and that’s just how it’s going to be.

(featured image via Eli Christman)

Eleanor Thibeaux is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer and audio post-production engineer originally from the Lone Star State. A tech geek, science fiction/fantasy fanatic, and dessert enthusiast, Eleanor is the kind of Type A person who puts “finish season 4 of Battlestar Galactica” on her to-do list. It’s important to have priorities. You can find her other works via her website, or follow her every important thought on Twitter: @ethibeaux

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