The Female Dollar

Pres­i­dent Obama is con­sid­er­ing appoint­ing, among oth­ers, Janet Yellen as chair­man of the Fed­eral reserve. Pre­dictably, oppo­nents and pro­po­nents both take her gen­der into con­sid­er­a­tion: she’d be the first female head of the cen­tral bank.

Yellen’s sup­port­ers think hav­ing a woman as chair would amount to a break­through for gen­der equal­ity, but oppo­nents have wor­ried about “the Female Dol­lar.” Have we entered, asks the New York Sun, “the era of the gender-backed dol­lar? The Wall Street Jour­nal quotes this lan­guage in its edi­to­r­ial denounc­ing the fact that Yellen’s “cause has been taken up by the lib­eral diver­sity police as a gen­der issue ”

My book Face Value looks at the way race talk informs money talk, but I could just have eas­ily looked at how gen­dered lan­guage fil­ters into money debates.

In Amer­i­can his­tory gold and sil­ver are usu­ally referred to as “hard” money, paper as “soft” money. Need I say more? Hard money is held to have good char­ac­ter, and to be the devoted com­pan­ion of the higher races, hard money is on board the war­ships of impe­ri­al­ism, while its sub­jects, or vic­tims, use flimsy paper.

The Civil War was financed by print­ing legal ten­der paper money, the famous green­backs. Fol­low­ing the war, Amer­i­cans split over what to do with these paper dol­lars. These argu­ments were never sim­ply about money; they always involved ques­tions about social sta­bil­ity and the mean­ing of difference

Thomas Nast in par­tic­u­lar loved to char­ac­ter­ize paper money as “the rag baby,” a grotesque, floppy doll mas­querad­ing as a real child. The child had par­ents, and in  the pages of Harper’s Weekly Nast usu­ally inverted their gen­der roles, to demon­strate that paper money emas­cu­lated its supporters.

Here we see Ben­jamin But­ler, a rad­i­cal repub­li­can and polit­i­cal cham­pion of paper money, as a woman with a “rag baby,” paper money.


Below pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Samuel Tilden is instructed to nurse his rag baby by his wife. Uncle Sam looks on sadly. Paper money, made of old rags, could no more be real money than a rag doll could be a live baby


In this car­toon Henry Carey, Lincoln’s finan­cial advi­sor and the man most respon­si­ble for Civil War green­backs, lies pros­trate sur­rounded by “her” rag babies.


Nast regarded paper money as an inver­sion of nat­ural order, con­fus­ing meanings.

There’s a long his­tory of asso­ci­at­ing money with women. Though Hermes/Mercury was the god of com­merce, For­tuna was female and Roman coins were minted in the tem­ple of Juno Mon­eta, from whom we get the word “money.”





For­tuna is capri­cious and unre­li­able, in Carmina Burana  (you’ve heard it in a bunch of movies) she waxes and wanes like the moon and “strikes strong men down.”

Credit, fortune’s side­kick, was itself was often viewed as female. In the U.S. Jack­so­ni­ans, who hated and detested paper money, con­stantly referred to the Sec­ond Bank of the US as the “Mother Bank,” a grotesque, swollen fig­ure that must be made to vomit forth coins, in a par­ody of birth.


Here Jack­son, shirt­less on the right, boxes against bank direc­tor Nicholas Bid­dle. The woman on the right is the Bank



Here Jack­son watches through the win­dow as his sup­port­ers make the bank sick, so it vom­its up its gold coins

Heavy, lov­ing lux­ury, the “mother” bank pro­moted weak depen­dence rather than manly virtue.


This car­toon shows the bank, a woman, tak­ing refuge in the bar­rel of hard cider offered by William Henry Harrison

These are highly sex­u­al­ized images–the half naked boxers; the man with his legs spread behind the “bank’s” head; the voyeuris­tic spec­ta­tors vio­lat­ing the bank in its bed­room; the bank in a cling­ing dress about to be…approached by Jack­son and Van Buren as dogs. Clearly there was much more than money to the money debate.

Money is always bound up with repro­duc­tion: coins and bills are both them­selves repro­duc­tions, but in cir­cu­la­tion they repro­duce the labor and wealth of the per­son who holds them. But money, invested, can grow. Crit­ics of bank­ing often talked about how a bank “breeds” money, cre­at­ing ille­git­i­mate inflated off­spring that then cir­cu­late promis­cu­ously. John Adams denounced the “swindlign and bar­ren gains” that banks pro­duced. There are any num­ber of accounts of how paper money puts peo­ple, espe­cially women, above their sta­tion: paper money is also called “loose” money. An anonynomous pam­phlet of 1721 com­plained that thanks to paper money

[T]he infe­rior sort will be clad in as costly Attire as the Rich and Hon­ourable … ordi­nary Tradesmen’s Wives … dressed in Silks and Sat­tens . . . Infe­riour Appren­tices and Ser­vants, hav­ing just obtained their Free­dom shall be dressed like Lords of the Man­nours; & in pub­lick Con­gresses were it not for the dif­fer­ent Seats they sit in one would scarce know Joan from my Lady by Day­light.

Paper money seemed to ini­ti­ate not just high prices, but social  infla­tion, the wrong sort of peo­ple in charge

In those days strange sights could be wit­nessed in the streets of Colum­bia [South Car­olina] at any time,” recalled ex-Confederate James Mor­gan of Recon­struc­tion, and the green­back econ­omy. More than once he remem­bered see­ing “a hand­some lan­dau drawn by a spank­ing pair of high-stepping Ken­tucky horses and con­tain­ing four negro wenches arrayed in low-neck and short-sleeved dresses, their black bosoms and arms cov­ered with real jew­els in the mid­dle of the day, draw up in front of a bar­room on Main Street where the wives and daugh­ters of the old and impov­er­ished aris­toc­racy did their shopping.

The elec­tion of Barack Obama ini­ti­ated a fren­zied spec­u­la­tion in gold as and new calls for a return to the gold stan­dard. No less a blowhard than Don­ald Trump insisted, in 2011, that he would now take “rent on one of his New York office build­ings in gold bul­lion instead of dol­lars, because of his con­cerns about Pres­i­dent Obama’s reck­less finan­cial policies.”

It’s a sad day when a large prop­erty owner starts accept­ing gold instead of the dol­lar,” Trump said in a state­ment, reported The Wall Street Jour­nal at the time. “The econ­omy is bad, and Obama’s not pro­tect­ing the dol­lar at all.…If I do this, other peo­ple are going to start doing it, and maybe we’ll see some changes.”

Gold has fallen in  price since then, and the much pre­dicted infla­tion hasn’t appeared, and Trump is still tak­ing paper money. But what about Janet Yellen?

Accord­ing to the LA times

In what has been a highly pub­lic cam­paign for Fed chair­man, crit­ics have por­trayed Yellen as being softer on con­trol­ling infla­tion than her chief rival for the nom­i­na­tion, for­mer Trea­sury Sec­re­tary Lawrence H. Summers.

That has added to an over­all per­cep­tion that Yellen — a soft-spoken, diminu­tive woman — may be too soft in gen­eral to lead the world’s most influ­en­tial cen­tral bank, a crit­i­cism that some say reflects a gen­der bias.

Gee, ya think? they man­aged to get the word “soft” in there three times. Google “Janet Yellen” and “soft” and you’ll find a lot of results, mostly arti­cles wor­ry­ing about whether or not she’ll be “soft on infla­tion.” Soft, and yielding.

If I had a lot of  sur­plus cash, which I don’t, I’d think about buy­ing gold. If Yellen is appointed, I’d expect the same kind of con­cern about the insta­bil­ity of the “soft” “female,” “gender-backed” dol­lar that led to the gold boom after Obama’s election.


One Comment

  • Well, the Roman mint was close to the tem­ple of Juno, not inside it — “[…] ubi nunc aedes atque offic­ina Mon­e­tae est” writes Livy [AUC VI.20].

    Also, I have the impres­sion that your ref­er­ence to For­tuna is under the assump­tion that she be the god­dess of wealth. She’s not. The dom­i­nant mean­ing of the Latin “for­tuna” is that of chance, luck, and For­tuna is the per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of that. If you really want to find a god of riches in the Roman pan­theon that would be Plutus.

    Not that any of this really mat­ters. Except to his­to­ri­ans, that is.

Leave a Reply

Your email is never shared.Required fields are marked *