Back in April, Mervyn King announced that Winston Churchill would be replacing Elizabeth Fry on the £5 note.
There is, I imagine, little argument about the significance of Churchill’s contribution to British history, nor his suitability for a place on one of our bank notes. I am sure, too, that this was meant to be swansong gesture designed to fix King in our memories as the man who put Churchill in our pockets. However, he rather runs the risk of being remembered as the man who sought to remove women from the faces of our bank notes.
Thank goodness for the Canadians (more on that in a moment). Principally, though, thank goodness for Caroline Criado-Perez who, on spotting the implications of what the bank was planning, started an online petition through change.org to force the bank to rethink. Her campaign was featured in The Guardian, on the BBC and in The Telegraph.
Her reasoning was simple and right:
“An all-male line-up on our banknotes sends out the damaging message that no woman has done anything important enough to appear. This is patently untrue. Not only have numerous women emerged as leading figures in their fields, they have done so against the historic odds stacked against them which denied women a public voice and relegated them to the private sphere – making their emergence into public life all the more impressive and worthy of celebration.”
And she has pulled it off.
Today, Mark Carney, the Canadian governor of the Bank of England, announced that Jane Austen would be the face of the new ten pound note.
Why does any of this matter?
Because it does.
Because it is not right for an institution as central to the organisation of our economic and political life as the Bank of England to believe it can operate in its own entitled bubble, failing to recognise that this country has been built on the hard work of men and women, the latter often, as Criado-Perez says, with the historic odds against them. I would go further and say that their hard work has often been in the face of hostility from privileged men who have struggled to reconcile themselves to the reality that politics, the workplace and the economy are as much the domains of women as they are of men.
If you think that such attitudes are a thing of the past, take a moment to think how on earth the Bank of England reach a position where no women were to be recognised on its bank notes? In Mervyn King’s own words at the time of the Churchill announcement: “Our banknotes acknowledge the life and work of great Britons.” It is clear from that the pictures are intended as a statement of significance. In 2010 there were around £48 billion pounds’ worth of notes in circulation. That is a lot of pieces of paper.
So why at no point did anyone appear to say to King: “Er, why are they all men?”
How did the design teams, the PR department, senior management and the Governor’s own office, not to mention King himself, let it happen?
It could, of course, be accident. However, most institutions and companies have strict policies and procedures to avoid such obvious idiocies. Or it could, of course, be a sub-concious, corporate mindset that still downplays the contribution of women in our national life in comparison to the contributions of men.
The sad reality is that entitlement and casual discrimination is still a force to be reckoned with, whether it is on our bank notes or, more banally, on our station platforms. Take a look at Everyday Sexism and its twitter feed to see a depressing stream of witless and offensive behaviour that demonstrates how disrespectful we still are to each other as a society.
Society looks to its leading institutions to lead change. When they fail, it takes the active grass roots of society to put pressure on those institutions.
Thank you Caroline Criado-Perez for saving us from looking like idiots.
And thank you Mark Carney for listening. (Now there’s just the little matter of the Canadian banknotes from which he removed women. Perhaps he was attempting to make amends for that as well as King’s faux pas?)
You can read the Bank of England background note on Jane Austen here.