The First Woman To Appear On U.S. Currency Was?
In June of 2015, the U.S. Treasury announced their plans to put a prominent historical female figure on the new $10 bill (keeping with the Treasury rule, of course, that no living person appear on U.S. currency). While the announcement kicked off a debate as to whether or not the $10 bill should be changed (and if so which woman should appear on it), it also brought the history of women on U.S. currency to the forefront of discussion.
While most people are familiar with the Sacagawea dollar coin (as it is still in use), there are much older examples of women on U.S. currency that date all the way back to the 1860s. The very first woman to appear on any U.S. currency was a highly stylized representation of Pocahontas on the back of the $20 bill back in 1865.
While the depiction of Pocahontas is rather curious to the modern viewer as she is featured on the back of the bill in a full and elaborate scene focused on her baptism (a strange thing to depict both from a separation of church and state point of view and in light of how little it highlights her actual contributions to the development of the United States), it would not have appeared particularly unusual to the people of the time as it was very common to have elaborate historical artwork on the back of currency.
It wasn’t until the 1870s that the Treasury dialed down the elaborate artwork and began focusing more on portraiture. Throughout the 1870s, 80s, and 90s we begin to see more traditional, by modern standards, currency entering into circulation (the 1880 $1 bill, for example, featured a large and centered portrait of George Washington much like the modern $1 bill).