THE BLOG

Right on the Money

14/06/2013 14:59 BST | Updated 13/08/2013 10:12 BST

Maybe you don't scrutinise your cash much. Maybe you just, you know - spend it? But you have probably noticed at some point that the reverse of British banknotes depict a series of Great British Heroes. This has been the case since 1970, and various luminaries have been showcased, including William Shakespeare, Isaac Newton, the Duke of Wellington, Christopher Wren, George Stevenson, Charles Dickens, Michael Faraday, Florence Nightingale and Edward Elgar. Current incumbents are John Houblon, Elizabeth Fry, Charles Darwin, Adam Smith, and the steamy double act of Matthew Boulton and James Watt.

The astute among you will recognise those names, and the fact that only two of them are women. One of the men isn't even famous; I mean, have you heard of John Houblon, who graces our £50 notes? No, I thought not. Well, he was the first Governor of the Bank of England, so he was famous in the one place where it matters, if you want to be on a banknote.

As for the women - well, Florence Nightingale featured for about twenty years, but our token woman at the moment, Elizabeth Fry, is about to be stood down from our fivers, despite the fact that she's been in post for a shorter time than Darwin or Houblon.

The women from The Women's Room noticed this. Hannah Curtis and Caroline Criado-Perez started their online database of women experts to fill the gap that the BBC and others said they couldn't, which led to such head-desking anomalies as two men on the Today programme talking about women's experience of breast cancer and imagining they were women. If women's voices can't be heard on 'women's issues', what chance do we have to speak about, oh, let's see, astronomy, or quantity surveying? Or money.

And now we are losing our only representation on banknotes, as Fry is to be replaced by Winston Churchill.

The Women's Room asked Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England, to consider replacing Fry with another woman. Lots of candidates came up, such as Jane Austen, Emmeline Pankhurst, Ada Lovelace, Mary Wollestonecraft, Edith Cavell, Boudicca... there's actually no shortage of women who are more eminent than John Houblon. Which is amazing, when you think about it. Women were not admitted to University degrees until about 1900. Oxford held out until 1920; Cambridge until 1948. So everything women achieved before then, they did not only backwards in heels but without much formal education. It's amazing that any of them achieved anything at all, and yet they did, in science, literature, politics, medicine, philosophy...

You might say that this is such a little thing, a very small fight, and there are bigger problems we need to address as feminists. However, as The Women's Room has pointed out, it's the incessant drip drip of these small slights that disheartens women. Having been allowed two women on banknotes, the Bank obviously believes we've had our turn and should pipe down. And having had one Prime Minister, well...

And before you say it - we know the Queen is on all the banknotes. There's no need to mansplain. But the point is, she didn't get there in recognition of her achievements. She got there because her father was king, and she didn't have a brother. Her life reveals the painful truth that women's status in our society usually resides in their relationships to men. That's the way the patriarchy works!

Incidentally in their Court of Directors and Monetary Policy Committee combined, the Bank of England currently boasts just one out of twenty-one, or 4.7%, women. There used to be women on the Monetary Policy Committee; there have been four out of thirty-three members since 1998, but when they stood down they were replaced by - can you guess?

The Bank says that in this portraiture decision it is not obliged to consider equality and discrimination law. It is a public body, and this is probably not a matter of national security, but it has refused a Freedom of Information request to 'show its working' as to how this decision was made. The Women's Room has begun a legal challenge to its position, and the Bank has apparently hired some very expensive lawyers to fight its case. This is being paid for by your money and mine. The Women's Room is accepting donations for its legal fight against the Bank.

The odd thing about the Bank's attitude is this; despite a petition with more than 27,000 signatures, it will not give way. To do the right and reasonable thing by 51% of the population would cost it nothing and make lots of women rather happier, but no, that's too hard a thing for it to do. Women deserve recognition for their contribution to national life and to the economy; Britain deserves to present at least the appearance of an equal and progressive society; but with its current management, the Bank of England looks both ungracious and reactionary. Which is an odd position to take, for an organisation which has so much to do with worth and value.