26/07/2013 06:50 BST | Updated 24/09/2013 06:12 BST

Still Waiting in the Wings


The Women's Room campaign to continue to have images of women on banknotes has succeeded. Not immediately, of course, because Elizabeth Fry will be taken off the £5 note and replaced by Winston Churchill. Jane Austen still has to "wait in the wings" for another four years to become the new face of the British tenner. It's hard to celebrate when the Bank of England was probably going to do this anyway. More importantly for the campaign, the Bank has promised to make its selection process more formal and transparent, so we will at least know that the next dead white male to feature was not chosen informally over a very decent claret at a Court of Directors' lunch.

Incidentally, the Court of Directors of the Bank of England consists of eleven men and one woman. The Monetary Policy Committee, which sets interest rates, is composed of nine men. Dame Deanne Julius, who served on the MPC as a founder member from 2001 to 2011, was replaced by... a man. Remind you of anything? This seems to be the way it goes in public life. Choose a woman once and you don't have to do so again for ages, no matter how many, or how well qualified the female candidates are.

There are people who say that the banknote fight wasn't worthwhile, because this is such a little thing and has no meaning. I would argue that it is of a thousand such slights that stereotypes are made, and whenever we see such under-representation of women - who are after all, not a minority in our society - we should "call" it.

Last night I visited an Oxford College Senior Common Room. Hung on the wall were a couple of hundred black and white portraits of college alumni, from ruffed Elizabethans, to Georgian preachers, Victorian bearded patriarchs, and 20th century worthies in suits and ties. I didn't see one woman in that group, nor any person of colour, which reflects the way the college was run until an astonishingly few years ago. Just stepping into that room should be enough to make any female student a feminist; it is a graphic demonstration of the effects of male privilege over hundreds of years. There should be an enormous party on the day a woman's portrait is given a place on that wall. I don't mention the name of that college here because I have no connection to it - it's not my fight - but I do hope somebody is fighting that particular fight.

Here's an institution I will mention by name. I'm a poet, and a proud member of the Poetry Society. Last Wednesday evening I visited their offices in Betterton Street, London, where they have a café and performance space, where, along with eleven other poets, I was reading my work. Around the walls there is currently an exhibition of poetic caricatures by artist Gerald Mangan. I didn't have time for a close look, but, being sensitised to these things, I noticed there were only a few women among his subjects. But when the Poetry Society showcased that exhibition on its website, they still managed to choose six white men to illustrate it. Could they not even show one token woman from among Mangan's subjects? Well, there is one little female figure next to Dylan Thomas. I'm guessing that is his long-suffering wife Caitlin. She's tiny and sketchy, and not filled in. I'm not sure what she's even doing there.

Again, this is a really small example of women being airbrushed out of our national life. You might ask why it matters. This is my answer; because an institution like the Poetry Society, which has a large proportion of female members (I'm guessing we are in the majority) should realise that it represents the art form in our national life. It has a responsibility to represent and reflect its membership and to demonstrate to potential new members that poetry is not all about dead white males. Heaven knows, British contemporary poetry is packed with excellent women. What message does the Poetry Society send to anyone who may not know that, but is interested in reading or writing poetry? Girls - this is not for you.

As for the banknote decisions, they are not uncontroversial; Winston Churchill had some views about votes for women. He is quoted as saying that:

"The women's suffrage movement is only the small edge of the wedge, if we allow women to vote it will mean the loss of social structure and the rise of every liberal cause under the sun. Women are well represented by their fathers, brothers, and husbands."

Amen to that first sentence, Winnie. While the acerbic Miss Austen had this to say about the so-called irrelevant slights that women suffer over and over again at the hands of male privilege:

"I cannot think well of a man who sports with any woman's feelings; and there may often be a great deal more suffered than a stander-by can judge of."