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.

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