The Bank of England have just issued a statement saying it stands by its decision to get rid of the last woman from British banknotes.
Mark Carney, the Bank of England governor, has a Herculean task ahead of him. No I’m not talking about slaying the country’s economic dragons. I refer instead to the battle he faces against a 28-year-old student.
Feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez told me in an interview she intended to turn up at the new Bank of England governor’s office as part of her drive to get the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street to put a woman on our bank notes.
The outgoing Bank boss Sir Mervyn King has announced Sir Winston Churchill will replace social reformer Elizabeth Fry on the face of the new fivers from 2016. So apart from the Queen, there will be no women represented for their contributions to our country’s history.
Ms Criado-Perez has launched a legal challenge under the equality act, but was given the brush-off by the Bank of England a few days ago.
But that hasn’t stopped her in her tracks. “I am definitely going to be turning up at the Bank of England offices along with my petition,” she vows.
That petition has now attracted nearly 27,000 signatures, and Ms Criado-Perez is now weighing up a fresh legal assault on the Bank.
Whether she goes ahead with a full judicial review depends on whether she can build a legal fund to back it.
There’s no doubting Ms Criado-Perez’ passion on the subject though. To those who say she’s obsessing about trivialities she retorts: “It’s very easy to say that small decisions like this don’t matter but actually the culture we live in is made up of little tiny sexist acts which you can just ignore but when you think of them collectively you start to see a pattern.”
Her petition argues that this matters because of a broader sexism in society, where only one in five experts in the media is a woman, and where female directors represent less than 17 per cent of the total.
You can see her point. What justification is there for excluding from our bank notes the likes of Rosalind Franklin – the British biophysicist whose research helped discover the structure of DNA, but unlike her male colleagues her wasn’t recognised for it in her lifetime – Mary Seacole – who set up a battlefield hotel for the wounded during the Crimean War – or Mary Wollstonecraft – the writer, philosopher and women’s rights advocate? Particularly when Sir John Houblon gets his mug plastered all over them. Sir John who? I rest my case.
And yes the Queen’s a woman, but the next monarch won’t be. And she’s not there by virtue of historic achievement, but by an accident of birth.
The men on the banknotes – Charles Darwin, Adam Smith, James Watt – are there because of their contributions to Britain’s past. Many women have, against the odds, reached the pinnacle of success in their own fields too.
I called the Bank requesting an interview on the subject but they declined, pointing me instead to a response to a freedom of information request on the matter.
This makes for interesting reading. It reveals that four candidates were shortlisted for the new fiver – Churchill “together with a female character and two other male characters”. So the woman was already outnumbered three to one.
Whoever was picked also had to surmount a number of other hurdles. They had to have made “a lasting contribution which is universally recognised and has had enduring benefits”, have “broad name recognition”, “the person should not be controversial; and…there should be good artwork upon which the Bank could base its pictorial representation”.
Because of the barriers to public success faced by many women over the centuries, there would be few indeed who would meet all those criteria.
So while Mr Carney wrestles with the economic big picture, Ms Criado-Perez is right to keep banging on about minor details.