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How often have you opened your wallet or purse, taken out any banknotes and then instead of spending them or paying them into your account, actually studied them? I too have not spent hours of my day examining the pieces of paper/cotton/melting polymer which allow me to pursue my acquisitive tendencies. But a couple of people have – and for good reason.
For the past few weeks, the Bank of England and its out-going governor, Sir Mervyn King, have been in a bit of hot water over their decision to replace Elizabeth Fry, social and prison reformer, with Winston Churchill on the UK £5 banknote. Producing new series of banknotes is nothing unusual; the controversy has arisen however due to Elizabeth Fry being the only woman to feature on UK banknotes currently in circulation (and only the second woman, after Florence Nightingale was ‘retired’ from the £10 note in 1994.)
Despite Charles Darwin having appeared for longer in the current series, the decision was made to replace Elizabeth Fry, bringing the future total number of women on British banknotes issued by the Bank of England to zero. This didn’t sit well with one person in particular: Caroline Criado-Perez. She started a petition on change.org to ask the Bank of England to keep at least one woman on British banknotes and as of the time of writing, the petition has amassed over 25,000 signatures (including mine!). Furthermore, Ms Criado-Perez is challenging the decision with regard to the UK Equality Act, claiming that the Bank has failed in its duty to eliminate gender discrimination.
Some have of course pointed out that all banknotes issued by the Bank of England feature Queen Elizabeth II. Sir Mervyn King himself also made this point when recently interviewed by Sky News; when asked about the issue of all-male banknotes he replied,
“Well with respect they all have a woman, the Queen. We’ve had fifteen figures on our bank notes, two have been women…I’m sure there’ll be women on our bank notes in the future as there have been in the past.”
Ms Criado-Perez was not impressed, as her vitriolic response demonstrates:
“You see Mervyn, as I explained in my petition, should you care to read it, we actually know about the Queen. But we’ve got a few problems with her being handed to us as a booby prize. You see Merv, and stop me if you already know this, the Queen isn’t really on the banknotes by virtue of her good works. She could have done absolutely nothing all her life and she would still be there, because, you see, the Queen is on the banknotes by virtue of her position, which she achieved through a grand old tradition called birthright. The Queen isn’t on the banknotes; the monarch is. And the monarch could be anyone – indeed, the monarch soon will be a man.”
The phrase ‘storm in a teacup’ has been bandied about regarding the reaction to the proposed change, along the lines of ‘there are more important things to be concerned about.’ Re-purposing a money-related saying here: “Look after the pennies, and the pounds will look after themselves.” Look at the small stuff, and larger things will follow. Ms Criado-Perez phrases it thus: “These notes will change hands every hour, every minute, every second. And every time they do, the message will drive a little deeper home: women do not belong in public life – they never have, and they never will.”
And, as many have implied, if this conflict is a little ridiculous; if it is indeed such a ‘small’ thing – then surely you could argue the Bank of England can’t have that many qualms about choosing another female figure to adorn the note. It’s not like there aren’t a great many to choose from. Who would you suggest?
Originally published here by the Foreign Policy Association.