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Published on July 29th, 2013 | by Eleanor Newis
Image © The Governer and Company of the Bank of England 2013


Jane Austen Banknote No Victory for Feminism

Has anyone ever read a newspaper comments board? This must surely be the best thing about reading newspapers online; if politicians want to understand “the man in the street” they should look no further than the comments on newspaper websites. Especially those concerning designated “women’s issues”. The recent success of the “Keep a woman on English banknotes campaign”, after a petition signed by 35, 000 people, provoked an interesting discussion after Emma Barnett’s article in the Daily Telegraph. Well, interesting in that it managed to illustrate a variety of misconceptions, narrow-minded tendencies, and irrelevant grievances in a remarkably small amount of pixels. Choice contributions include “This is political ‘correctness’ gone mad! Where will this lead? I can see them printing banknotes with Islamic women in full burkas next!” Now, let us think about what has actually happened here. There might not have been a picture on a banknote of a woman, now there will be a picture on banknote of a woman. Is this a victory for feminism, or a victory political correctness? Is it indeed a victory at all?

Stella Creasy, the Labour MP for Walthamstow who organised a letter from 46 Labour MPs and peers to support the petition, said “Britain has many women in its history of whom we should be proud, and today’s decision is part of creating a culture of expectation that there will be many more in our future too.” This is the main argument behind the banknote debacle: women must have their achievements celebrated just as men do. Also, Caroline Criado-Perez, leader of the campaign, emphasised the power of images. She said, when interviewed on Radio 4’s PM programme, that the picture behind the reception desk at the BBC Television Centre was of four men and no women. Her point being that images like this one, and like those of banknotes, influence young women. If a schoolgirl walks into to Television Centre, thinking of becoming a broadcaster, she may walk out again with a different mindset, thanks to the reception’s picture. I do not deny the power of images; it would be foolish to do so in a world dominated by media and advertising. But, Ms Criado-Perez, if your premise is the power of images, there is a big question to be asked: what about the message given to all the minorities not represented on banknotes, or indeed behind the reception desk of Television Centre?

The Daily Telegraph readers wrestling with the issue managed to inadvertently highlight this: “I can see them printing banknotes with Islamic women in full burkas next!” Dear commenter, you see into a better future than me. Yes, the figures on banknotes are almost all men. But they are also all white, supposedly heterosexual, and largely middle or upper class. The choice of Jane Austen as the next figure to be illustrated on the £10 note from 2017 was also clearly made because of her fame. Jane Austen, not Rosalind Franklin. Charles Darwin, not Alfred Russell Wallace. Even, dare I say it, Elizabeth Fry and not Robert Tressell. We are led to the conclusion then that faces on banknotes are really about British PR as oppose to giving true recognition to achievement. Which leads to the rather desolate conclusion that when presented with the plethora of issues still facing women today, a faction of UK feminists chose to fight a PR machine and the terrifying patriarchal dictator that is… former Governer Mervyn King. Well wouldn’t Emily Davison be proud?

Looking at some statistics, we can see that there are currently 650 MPs in the House of Commons, and 146 of them are female. Maybe, just maybe, Creasy will feel so buoyed up by her success over the banknotes that she will have the courage to run a campaign for actual political change. But I doubt it. I suspect her next big battle will be banning Page 3 or demanding lads’ mags be kept behind shop counters. And the saddest thing is that these campaigns would garner more support than any tangible debate. When reading through the Daily Telegraph comments board, I also found this: “so 35,000 dopey cows signed this petition. How many signed the one demanding female infantry units in the army? NONE.” It is no wonder that so many young women feel disconnected from Feminism as a political movement when the media surrounding a banknote campaign beats women’s right to fight for their country so easily. The day that 35, 000 people and 46 Labour MPs and peers get together and decide to tackle equal pay and political representation is one that I hope I live to see. In the meantime, I want to see those 35, 000 people follow the logic of their own argument and demand full demographic equality on English banknotes.

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About the Author

Eleanor Newis

Eleanor is studying English Language and Literature at the University of Oxford, she is particularly interested in UK politics. Her interest is mainly in welfare policy, social integration, freedom of speech, human rights and also environment policy. "I enjoy writing as it is a great way of starting discussions, developing my own opinion and raising awareness around issues, as well as interrogating those in authority. It is important to question our politics, and equally important to question ourselves."

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