Starting in 2016, Sir Winston Churchill, the great leader that carried England through World War II will bring his characteristic scowl to the British £5 note. The changing currency will see the British Bulldog supplant 19th century prison reformer and women’s rights advocate Elizabeth Fry. Following a visit to a women’s prison in 1813, says The National Women’s History Museum, Fry “formed the Association for the Improvement of the Female Prisoners in Newgate, which established a school for the prisoners and allowed them to create crafts to sell.”
In 1818, was called to testify by the House of Commons about the conditions of the prison, making her the first woman to ever be called before the House. Her work led to the founding of other prison reform associations all over Europe. In 1927, Elizabeth published Observations, on the visiting superintendence and government of female prisoners. The book not only advocated for prison reform, but also for the rights of women.
Fry had been on banknotes since 2002, but now it’s Churchill’s turn. The problem with the switch, however, is that this leaves exactly zero women’s faces on the banknotes of Britain—except for the queen, of course. That dearth of female faces, said the Guardian, meant that the Bank of England was threatened with being taken to court for “failing to adhere to equality laws.” Caroline Criado-Perez, an equality campaigner, told the Guardian that,
“Mervyn King has a huge responsibility when deciding who appears on our notes. He says himself that banknotes acknowledge the life and works of great Britons. An all-male lineup on our banknotes sends out the damaging message that no woman has done anything important enough to appear. It is not acceptable for such an influential institution to overlook women in this way.”
That exchange took place a few months ago, and now the Bank of England has decided that famed British novelist Jane Austen will back the new £10 note starting around 2017. Austen will be replacing Charles Darwin.
The whole debacle has drawn attention to the inequality shown in representations of important female figures. Journalist Sebastian Salek put together an infographic showing the gender representation on some of the world’s currencies. (For what it’s worth, the U.S. does carry a woman’s image on one piece of tender: Sacagawea graces the dollar coin.)
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