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.
A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.