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