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25 July 2013

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.

By Helen Lewis

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? 

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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.