WASHINGTON — During a recent appearance on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen was faced with a tricky question: After nearly two years on the job, why is signing her predecessor, Steven T. Mnuchin, was it still scrawled across national currency?
The answer, she explained, was a quirk of coinage design that required a new United States Treasurer to be in place before money could be remade with both of their signatures.
It finally happened on Thursday when the first banknotes bearing the name of the first female US Treasury Secretary were unveiled. The occasion was another crack in the glass ceiling for Ms Yellen and the notoriously male-dominated field of economics.
The bills will also bear the name of Marilynn Malerba, the first Native American to serve as treasurer. The first $1 and $5 bills with their signatures will enter circulation next month.
Ms Yellen, who previously served as chair of the Federal Reserve and head of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, said Thursday that having her name on the currency was more than a personal career achievement .
“Today is not about me or a new signature on our currency,” Ms. Yellen said during a visit to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Ft. Worth, Texas. “This is about our collective work to create a stronger, more inclusive economy.”
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The Treasury Secretary noted that things have not always been easy for women in economics. When Ms. Yellen completed her doctorate at Yale in 1971, she recalls, there were no other women in her cohort.
“When I was early in my academic career, women made up just 6% of professors in economics departments surveyed by the American Economic Association,” Ms. Yellen said. “And that was in the early 1970s. The women who came before me – and even more so for those in less forgiving professions – had it much worse.
During her first two years at the Treasury, Ms. Yellen sought to bring more gender and racial diversity to the department, a move to ensure that the Biden administration’s economic policies are representative of the people and more equitable.
From a political point of view, Ms. Yellen’s tenure has not been without turbulence. The $1.9 trillion US bailout that Democrats passed last year has helped fuel the fastest inflation in four decades. After expressing optimism that inflation would slow as pandemic-stricken supply chains unravel, Ms Yellen admitted this year that she had misjudged the trajectory of rising prices.
And while Ms Yellen scored a major diplomatic victory in 2021 by getting more than 130 countries to agree to enact a global minimum tax, Congress has yet to ratify the pact, leaving the international tax overhaul in limbo.
That had helped fuel speculation in Washington that Ms Yellen might quit after the midterm elections. However, she told a New York Times DealBook conference in November that she was committed to staying.
“I have no intention of leaving,” Ms Yellen said, adding that she was excited to carry out President Biden’s agenda.
The work may soon become more difficult. Republicans, who are taking control of the House of Representatives, have made clear they plan a series of aggressive investigations into the policies of the Biden administration, including its efforts to strengthen the Internal Revenue Service.
Ms. Yellen will play a leading role in those efforts, overseeing an $80 billion overhaul of the tax agency. His department will also have to navigate the enactment of a climate and energy law that has angered the European Union and contains tax measures that will be worked out at the Treasury Department. And Ms Yellen will face the challenge of keeping together an international push to impose crushing sanctions on Russia without causing further inflationary backlash.
In her remarks, Ms. Yellen noted that while women have appeared on US currency, there is still unfinished work to be done to diversify US currency.
“Thanks to your hard work, we will be introducing new currency designs in the years to come, including placing Harriet Tubman’s portrait on the $20 bill,” she said.
The initiative to add Tubman to the $20 bill was first proposed by Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew in 2016, but stalled under the Trump administration under Mr. Mnuchin’s watch. The Biden administration said last year it was exploring ways to speed up the release of a redesigned $20 bill, but the complexity of developing new anti-counterfeiting technology continues to be an obstacle. The new $20 bills are expected to be released in 2030.
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The delay in securing Ms Yellen’s signature on the greenback stems from the slow White House process for choosing a US treasurer. By tradition, the treasurer must sign the money with the secretary of the treasury. Both signatures are engraved on plates at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, where they are printed and submitted to the Federal Reserve, which determines which currency will be added to circulation.
Mr. Biden finally nominated Ms. Malerba in June. The role, which does not require Senate confirmation, includes oversight of the US Mint, Bureau of Engraving and Printing and Fort Knox.
Ms. Malerba, who attended the event at Ft. Worth said “this moment is history”, noting that “two women on the coin for the first time is momentous”.
Within the Treasury Department, the deployment of banknotes bearing the signature of Ms. Yellen was enthusiastically received.
“It’s a great moment – both symbolic – but also important,” Wally Adeyemo, deputy treasury secretary, said in an interview this week. “One of the things I’m looking forward to is giving my 5-year-old goddaughter a copy of an invoice signed by two women, including Janet Yellen, who is the first woman in over 200 years to to be Secretary of the Treasury.”
The unveiling of the Treasury Secretary’s signature on the new currency is traditionally a moment of intrigue and fanfare.
At Mr. Mnuchin’s ceremony in 2017, he posed with a sheet of uncut $1 bills with his wife, Louise Linton. The footage has gone viral, with Mr Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs banker, drawing comparisons to a Bond villain.
During her conversation with Mr. Colbert, Ms. Yellen recalled that Mr. Lew’s signature appeared to consist of eight circles connected together and that the calligraphy of his predecessor, Timothy F. Geithner, had also been revealed. illegible. Both, she said, needed to be redone.
On Thursday, Ms Yellen – who is known to have a penchant for rigorous preparation – acknowledged she had spent “quality time” clearly signing her name before submitting it to the director of the Office of Engraving and impression.
“You would think it would be a simple process,” Ms Yellen said. “But the Founding Fathers overlooked what seems to be a common attribute of Treasury secretaries: namely, terrible handwriting.”
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