Saturday 3 August 2013

The Politics of Pictures on Money

British Heroine: Elizabeth Fry
Having signed the petition organized by Caroline Criado-Perez to ensure that a woman other than the monarch was retained on British banknotes, I'm pleased the campaign succeeded. I'd have preferred to retain Elizabeth Fry, the prison reformer, campaigner for the homeless and mother of eleven about to be deleted from our £5 notes, but will reluctantly settle for Jane Austen on the £10.

Men I have talked to think this is a storm in an elitist girlie tea-cup, but I can promise it matters. Many have been the train rides and hours in dentists’ waiting rooms I have spent with small children where the sole form of entertainment available was examining the money in my purse.

Without Elizabeth Fry I would never have been able to imply that women had contributed to history at all. Moreover, the gruesome conditions in early 19th-century prisons are far more interesting to the very young than Mr Darcy’s jodhpurs.

I am fed up with the argument that it is difficult to find ‘uncontroversial’ women who have done important things.  Men have got on banknotes for playing football and inventing the aircraft ejector seat (both Northern Ireland). So it’s fair that in Iceland a woman got on a banknote for being good at embroidery (Ragnheidur Jonsdottir, 1646-1715). In pre-Euro Eire, Catherine McAuley got the banknote privilege just for being a nun. 

Colombian Policarpa Salavarrieta
Romania still had the Emperor Trajan on their money until 1947, because he had conquered them: what would be wrong with sticking Boudicca on British money for actually defying the Romans? Venezuela and Colombia have thus honoured War of Independence heroines, after all.

Scottish feminist Elsie Inglis

And surely being ‘uncontroversial’ is in the eye of the beholder. Australia, New Zealand and Canada have all put plenty of women suffragists on their banknotes. What exactly would be wrong with Emmeline Pankhurst? In Scotland the Clydesdale Bank has been printing the brilliant feminist doctor Elsie Inglis on their £50 since 2009.

Suggested new £5 note copyright G. Poynder (age 13)

For putting her head above the parapet, Caroline Criado-Perez has received misogynist abuse and threats over Twitter. So has classicist Mary Beard for daring to appear on television after the menopause. Having personally never been the victim of any worse male social-media harassment than a mild Facebook lynching, I can't imagine what either of these admirable women is going through. Perhaps we should put them both smiling in the sky, with the grim-jowled Winston Churchill, on the new £5 note.


  1. Thank you edith... onwards and upwards! m

    1. Thanks for this, Mary. You have a lot of support out there.