Ever had a really good look at British bank notes? One side displays the current reigning monarch and the other side shows a historically significant British person. British bank notes are changed regularly and the historical personage chosen is at the discretion of the Bank of England.
The current Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, has announced recently that new GBP 5 notes printed as of 2016 will feature Winston Churchill (replacing social reformer Elisabeth Fry). Fry and Florence Nightingale are the only 2 non-royal women who have ever featured on a British banknote. Moreover, although Darwin’s image on the GBP 10 banknote is actually the oldest of the current crop of banknotes, his picture is not facing immediate replacement.
Concerned citizens have set up an online petition to reverse King’s decision at Change.org which has already received over 25,000 signatures. No one disputes that Churchill is a worthy candidate to be featured on a banknote. The issue, however, is about overlooking all the important women who have made significant contributions to Britain.
King’s response that a woman is represented on all the banknotes already (the Queen) is just plain condescending. The monarch is always on the banknotes by virtue of his or her position. The person on the other side is chosen for their achievements.
Out of the 4 banknotes that Britain has, surely one should be reserved for a woman? Admittedly the list of qualified women is shorter than men because historically women have been limited to the domestic sphere. There have been plenty of suggestions on significant women in British history to jog King’s memory along. A Guardian poll asking the public listed a diverse range of options, including Mary Wollstonecraft (author and philosopher), Jane Austen (author), Rosalind Franklin (scientist) and Mary Seacole (pioneer nurse).
Who would I vote for? I have a soft spot for Octavia Hill primarily because I am a daily recipient of her foresight because I live near Hampstead Heath.
Octavial Hill was another 19th century social reformer who had many charitable interests. Born in the countryside into a family who believed in social reform, her family fell into straightened circumstances and moved to London. She had no formal education and started working at the age of 14. Her early years in the countryside left her with the strong belief that poor people would benefit from green spaces. I am very grateful that she was instrumental in keeping Hampstead Heath and Highgate Woods as public open spaces instead of falling into the hands of developers.
She was also one of the 3 founders of the National Trust. Through her work with the urban poor, she met John Ruskin who was an investor in the early form of social housing she set up. In addition to collecting rents, Hill and her colleagues also set up a home visiting service for the tenants which would form the basis for modern social work.
Tristram Hunt, politician and historian, wrote an article about Octavia Hill for The National Trust Magazine on the centenary of her death in 2012.
“In addition to founding the Trust, she was one of the greatest social entrepreneurs in British history. From housing to philanthropy, arts policy to feminism, welfare reform to conservation, her legacy is all around us and, what is more, in current times, it is coming back into fashion.”
Tristram Hunt (2012)
I have a daughter who I am encouraging to be a strong, fearless female. I hope she will be someone who will, in Sheryl Sandberg’s parlance, Lean In (if she chooses to) and take advantage of all the opportunities available to her (thanks to the hard work and sacrifice of generations of women who came before her). Although many of those women are nameless, it’s not asking too much to honour one of the women we do know about alongside the other Great Britons represented on the banknotes.
If you care about this issue, please sign the petition at change.org and forward this post to other people who would do the same.