WASHINGTON — President Obama created a minor stir last week when he said it would be "a pretty good idea" to put more women's faces on U.S. currency.
Could it happen? It turns out that changing the lineup of dead presidents on paper currency is within the power of the Obama administration.
An 1862 act of Congress gives the secretary of the Treasury near-complete authority over the design and printing of paper currency, while Congress retains the power of coinage under the Constitution.
Adding women would mean either creating a denomination or bumping one of the familiar men adorning the front of paper currency.
The White House said it had no announcement on the design of greenbacks. "I don't have anything to report to you on the faces on our currency," spokesman Eric Schultz said.
Obama opened up the issue in an economic speech in Kansas City last week.
"A young girl wrote to ask me why aren't there any women on our currency, and then she gave me like a long list of possible women to put on our dollar bills and quarters and stuff — which I thought was a pretty good idea," he said.
The White House would not disclose the contents of the letter but said it was written by a girl from Massachusetts.
Under the law, there are only two requirements the secretary of the Treasury must follow in designing paper money: The bills must contain the inscription "In God We Trust" in an appropriate place, and only portraits of dead people may appear, with their names underneath.
Under the 2001 Legal Tender Modernization Act, the Treasury is prohibited from changing the design of the $1 bill.
The lineup of portraits has remained more or less unchanged since 1929. Most bills contain pictures of presidents, although there are exceptions for Benjamin Franklin (the $100 bill) and two secretaries of the Treasury — Alexander Hamilton ($10 bill) and Salmon P. Chase (the no-longer-printed $10,000 bill).
Recent efforts to redesign paper currency have been focused on making bills less vulnerable to counterfeiting and more accessible to the blind and visually impaired.
There are other considerations in redesigning currency, Treasury officials said. The greenback has become the "de facto world currency," Treasury spokeswoman Suzanne Elio said, and the portraits are so recognizable that changing them would cause confusion.
The only other option would be to introduce a denomination, something the Treasury has no plans to do.
There have been three women on circulating U.S. coins, according to the U.S. Mint: women's voting rights advocate Susan B. Anthony on the dollar coin from 1979-1981; Native American Sacagawea on the dollar coin beginning in 1999; and Helen Keller, a pioneer for disabled rights, on the reverse of the 2003 Alabama quarter.
There has been only one woman on U.S. paper currency: First lady Martha Washington appeared on the $1 silver certificate in 1886, 1891 and 1896.