Removing Elizabeth Fry from the five pound note isn't a small fry issue

Mervyn King's decision to put Winston Churchill on our five pound notes rather than Elizabeth Fry might seem trivial, but by not commemorating any women on our cash, we're encouraging the perception women are secondary to men, says Stella Creasy.

Money can’t buy you love. But it can offer recognition both in pay and in print. That's why most countries use currency to celebrate those figures of history whose legacy is designed to inspire and evoke national pride. The outgoing Bank of England Governor Mervyn King’s decision to nominate Churchill for immortalisation on a fiver is therefore entirely fitting. Yet the consequences of this reveal the bigger barriers we face in making our country a place where everyone succeeds.

Philanthropist and prison reformer Elizabeth Fry has been on our smallest bank note since 2002. While the Queen remains on all legal tender, King’s decision, whether consciously or not, removes the only historical female commemorated in this way. The decision is out of kilter with protocol as, while no figure remains in perpetuity, Darwin has featured since 2000 and thus could be considered first in line for replacement. It’s also out of step with other countries - Scotland has two series of five pound notes, each with one woman on, the Norwegians and Swedes who have five-value notes with two women on each and the Australians who have fifty-fifty representation.

Many will shrug and say so what. The Bank itself cannot see the big deal. They argue the choice of people on bank notes is not an "equality matter". After all, women face widespread and perpetual violence in their lives, pay equality has stalled and representation in the media, politics, judiciary, academia and business remains stubbornly lopsided. In such an unbalanced world, whose face we see on our banknotes when we buy a pint of milk can feel like a sidebar issue. Yet the absence of everyday celebration of women’s capabilities is as influential as their objectification in creating a society in which inequality flourishes. Little things like this add up to produce a context where the big things like pay gaps and violence seem more palatable and inevitable, as they encourage the perception women are secondary to men.

Modernity is a plethora of small battles that if won could all help nurture movement on bigger changes too- whether the persistence of Page 3, Facebook’s accountability for its depiction of women to the reconfiguration of cartoon heroines to be sexually alluring and the decline of women on screen in talking roles. When women are not seen or heard in their own varied and distinctive voices, its easier for others to define their worth - from those who argue rape victims can held be culpable or who claim concern for gender equality encourages a lack of femininity. Conversely when men and women interact, they help each other achieve. Making public female success doesn't just make women feel good. It makes us all expect more of each other- and in turn ask why it isn't happening, so encouraging us to search harder for all the talent that resides within our shores.

If Britain is to be a place where potential is realised, we need to be willing to confront these speedhumps on our road to equality; becoming a country in which women from all walks of life are seen and speaking out as well as spoken about and shown. Even if Fry's time is up, the range of women who could be acknowledged is immense; from Mary Seacole to Mary Wollstencraft, Emily Davison to Rosalind Franklin. In showcasing them we generate an anticipation of future success for 51 per cent of the population that helps build a more just, more equal and so more prosperous world for all.

Mervyn and his fellow members of the Court of Directors of the Bank of England - gender balance of one woman out of twelve - need to hear deleting Elizbeth Fry isn’t a small fry issue. That’s why I’m backing the Women’s Room who have until the 24 June to raise the remaining £7,000 required for a judicial review – please help by donating a Darwin this week to send a message it matters that women are on the money.  

Stella Creasy is the Labour and Co-operative MP for Walthamstow

The absence of everyday celebration of women's capabilities is more influential than many will think.
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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue