THE BLOG

Who Cares About an Image on a Bit of Paper?

15/11/2015 20:13 GMT | Updated 15/11/2016 10:12 GMT

Back in 2012, I turned on the Today programme, to find a bunch of men talking. Not unusual, really, except the item was about women's experiences of a particular breast cancer test. I listened as John Humphreys asked a man, 'if you were a woman, you would have no

hesitation being screened?'

The BBC claimed they'd been unable to find a female spokesperson. Given the number of talented women out there, I couldn't believe there was such a narrow selection of voices to pick from. So I decided to set up The Women's Room - a database of female professionals that could be sourced by the media to ensure greater female representation.

But only half a year later, the Bank of England announced in 2013 they were replacing Elizabeth Fry with Winston Churchill on the £5 note. What the press release failed to mention was that, apart from the Queen, this would lead to an all male line-up.

You might ask - who cares about an image on a bit of paper? But the Bank's decision was a small example of a much bigger problem. It was indicative of a damaging trend - the woeful lack of female role models in our society.

Sure, we make up half the population, but women only account for 13% of news subjects, 28% of Hollywood speaking roles and 25% of the media's 'experts'. Even walking around London, I'm struck by the number of male statues dominating our capital's streets and buildings. This is more than just 'unfair'. It has been scientifically proven that such a visible lack of female role models has a negative affect on women's choices and performance.

My concern was that if the Bank of England expunged the only woman from its currency, every time a note changed hands the subliminal message would be sent that no woman's achievements were considered worthy enough to feature. I couldn't let that happen.

My first action, one Friday afternoon in April, was to launch an online petition through Change.org calling upon the Bank of England to reverse their decision. By Monday the petition had gained enough support to draw the media's gaze.

The bank had enough nouse to realise they had to respond - but not enough to realise the power I had with the Internet behind me. Their first effort was a pat on the head and 'thanks for the suggestion' sort of reply. Subsequent communications were met with obfuscating and stonewalling.

Why was the campaign of so much interest? I think it was a great story - a kind of David vs. Goliath. Here we were students at the time, just a bunch of activists trying to raise money to take on the Bank of England (we set up a crowdfunder for a legal challenge). More than that, the message resonated. The banknote was a visible and easily understandable way of highlighting a deep-set societal problem.

Over the course of the next few weeks, we drip-fed the campaign. Six letters threatening legal action were sent to the bank. Stella Creasy organised a letter signed by senior Labour politicians. Maria Miller gave her backing and Ed Miliband mentioned the campaign in his speech.

It helped that the bank fuelled the campaign. Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England at the time, appeared on Sky News and effectively asked what the fuss was about given the Queen was a permanent feature on all banknotes. The fact that the monarch's image adorns our currency by mere accident of birth, rather than by virtue of achievement, clearly hadn't registered.

Finally, with 36,000 signatories and £13,000 raised in readiness for legal action, we achieved success. On 24 July 2013, Mark Carney, the new governor, announced that from 2017, Jane Austen would appear on the £10 note. He also promised an extensive review of the selection process.

What was the main reason for the campaign's success? The Internet was fundamental. While campaigns can only get so far without the support of the press, launching an online petition enabled me to grab the media's attention in a way that just hadn't been possible before. I was able to engage a large audience, and fast. By the time Mark Carney took up his post, I assume he just thought 'I've got an economy to sort out, get this off my desk and give this woman what she wants'.

But while the Internet was essential to the campaign's success, for me, it proved a double-edged sword. In the days after the dust settled, I (alongside other female campaigners) became the target of a stream of Twitter abuse. Every hour, I received up to fifty graphic rape and death threats. When my suspected address was posted alongside the warning 'women who talk too much need to get raped', I was terrified.

Despite advice to ignore the tweets, I decided to fight back. I was not going to be silenced by a bunch of spineless idiots who couldn't deal with women in the public space. I tweeted my objections and was joined by a torrent of support. Without Twitter assuming any responsibility for the content of the abusive tweets, I went to the police which eventually led to two prosecutions.

It was a horribly traumatic time and some people have asked whether I regretted my decision to take on the Bank of England. The answer is no. In a way, campaigning for women on banknotes helped achieve an unexpected victory. It forced Twitter to take this kind of relentless abuse seriously.

Yes, the backlash to my protest was one I hadn't bargained on and caused me to leave Twitter for a time. But I couldn't stay away for long. As an activist and journalist, it was too valuable a tool to give up. Besides, I wasn't going to be driven away by a group of women-hating cowards.

This article was originally published by The Brewery at freuds, in partnership with Change.org. Read the full publication here.