Women on bank notes: I was wrong

What looked at first to me like a trivial issue opened up a vital debate about the importance of women's achievements in our society.

Here's the thing: I was wrong.

When Caroline Criado-Perez first started making noise about the fact that the Bank of England had dropped the only woman chosen to be on a banknote - Elizabeth Fry - and replaced her with Winston Churchill, I didn't think it was a big deal. Aren't there bigger things to worry about than who gets pictured on our money? What about rape, domestic violence, global hunger, income inequality, the fact I can't find a shoe that is comfortable and stylish? Why are bloody feminists always obsessing over the small stuff instead of solving the real problems?

Now, I've realised that this the line of reasoning that ends, inexorably, with you posting the comment "HOW IS THIS NEWS?!? F1!RST!" on Guardian stories about otters. 

First, the kind of people who complain that an activist isn't focusing on the Real Problem aren't usually focusing on it themselves, either. They're just looking for a cheap, armchair way to feel like they're better than someone else. (Also, on a general note, being a dick to people on Twitter is not activism.)

Second, faced with a huge array of injustices, it's better to do something than do nothing, always. (I don't think Criado-Perez would have cracked the Middle East peace process if only she hadn't been too busy with banknotes.) There's a power in small, symbolic actions; I mean, what was Gandhi thinking when he had a stroll to the sea to make salt? Who cares about salt, right, when there's independence to fight for? 

Third, and this is where my really big apology comes - actually, this campaign is really important. Because of it, we've had a conversation, as high up as George Osborne and Maria Miller, about the sidelining of women in British history. People have had the chance to talk about what women they admire in the story we tell about ourselves and our country. It prompted Ed Miliband to give a speech about the representation of women in public life, and it gave Osborne the chance to do a pun on Twitter. It allowed all the tweeters who knee-jerked to "yeah but there is a woman - the Queen" a moment to reflect why the Queen is there, compared with those who are there on merit, and why women might find that insulting. It helps education campaigners vocalise why they are unhappy with a national history curriculum focused on "posh white blokes".

And it allowed Tory MP Mary Macleod to indulge in the most shameless piece of glory-hunting since John Terry. 

Most of all, it gave a template for a successful, focused campaign. Asking women to protest outside the Bank of England dressed as their favourite historical characters was a stroke of genius, giving the media a fun story (and good pictures to use every time they then wrote about the campaign - making it more likely to be reported prominently).

Criado-Perez might not have "smashed patriarchy", but she has shown that you can make the world better, even if only by a fraction. And that is a damn sight better than nothing. 

 

Criado Perez protests outside the Bank of England. Photo: Getty

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Photo: Getty
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No, straight couples don't face marriage discrimination

The couple are right in law, but their complaint is ill-judged and tone-deaf. 

The Court of Appeal has struck down the case of a heterosexual couple - Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan seeking to have a civil partnership. The couple in question say they are the victims of discrimination. Are they right?

The legal question is more complex than the headlines. The government’s position is that they are waiting and seeing what the introduction of equal marriage means for the future of civil partnerships. Either civil partnerships will cease to be an option for same-sex couples or they will be extended to everyone. Judges were divided as to whether or not they should leave it for the government to decide that, or if civil partnerships should be extended to heterosexual couples. They opted to leave it to parliament, albeit by a narrow margin.

Legally, the judges agree, that the state of affairs creates a system where the law treats heterosexual and homosexual couples differently, and that this should be ended. And as far as the law is concerned, I agree. But emotionally and morally, the case of Steinfeld and Keidan stick in my craw.
Let’s remember why civil partnerships were created: to allow same-sex couples to access some of the legal protections extended to heterosexual couples in a way that could pass through the Houses of Parliament without being bogged down in too many battles with religious conservatives.

The rights that are not extended to civil partners include: a prohibition on religious readings, music or symbols. They cannot take place in religious venues, regardless of the beliefs of the owners’ rights. And people in a civil partnership cannot describe themselves as “married” on legal documents. There is no provision for separation as a result of adultery.

The rights not enjoyed by married couples in civil partnerships are: the ability to have private ceremonies without witnesses present. The reason why heterosexual marriages include provision for witnesses is the existence of forced heterosexual marriages in the United Kingdom, a rare example of a legal distinction based upon the sexuality of a couple that is grounded in fact, not prejudice or mumbo-jumbo. There is still no recognition for adultery in same-sex relationships in English law, whether you are married or in a civil partnership.  Equal marriage still has yet to be extended to Northern Ireland.

But if you are a heterosexual couple and you want to have a civil union that eschews religious messages, or patriarchal tropes, from being walked down the aisle by your father to the presence of a white wedding dress, you can. If you dislike the phrase “husband” or the word “wife”, you can use whatever word you like, in a social and a legal context. Don’t forget, too, that the courts have ruled recently in favour of couples in longstanding partnerships outside of marriage being able to access pension and other survivor benefits.

So while there is discrimination as a matter of law, it is hard to see how there is discrimination as a matter of fact for heterosexual couples. There is, however, a continuing discrimination towards homosexual couples in the divorce courts and in Northern Ireland.

It seems particularly ill-judged to claim discrimination while using the courts to gain access to an institution created as a pathway to the rights you already enjoy and can freely access, crowdfunding £35,000 along the way, particularly while there is still genuine marriage inequality between heterosexual and homosexual couples. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.