Thursday, 15 August 2013

Why Does It Matter Who Is On Our Banknotes?

Money equals power. Money makes the world go round. The man who owns enough money can do just about anything he pleases with it (within the boundaries of physics). As much as we may detest this notion we cannot deny that a capitalist society thrives upon its ability to generate wealth. Currency has come to mean everything, right down to our basic survival. It is the greatest indicator of who has control in this country, and quite obviously that control still lies firmly in the hands of men alone.

“BUT,” you say “The Queen is on every bank note.” Queen Elizabeth was born into her role in society; she did not ask to be such a significant public figure and she certainly did not earn the right, unlike Charles Darwin (the esteemed English naturalist), Adam Smith (described as being one of the fathers of modern economics), Matthew Boulton and James Watt (whose advances in steam engine technology made a significant contribution to the progress of the Industrial Revolution), or Sir John Houblon (the first ever governor of the bank of England). Undoubtedly, our head of state has done a lot of good work for her subjects, but she is largely still a pawn in a patriarchal system, and has not contributed to the economic, scientific or political progression of British society. It’s like sticking Prince Charles on every note and saying it’s enough that he’s a bloke – the monarchy simply aren’t representative of all the people who built this country, because they mostly sat around and watched whilst everybody else made a fuss. And what if you happened to be really anti-monarchy? (That of course is a whole other very large and very complicated kettle of fish).

The real issue here is that women have contributed just as much to the British Empire as men have, and that fact is not being expressed anywhere, let alone on the backs of UK currency. Women’s history has been smothered by clandestine methods since the dawn of time – there’s a reason you don’t have knowledge of the female warriors who led armies into battles or the women who fought against all odds to lobby for vital changes in UK legislation. Did you know that those anonymously authored poems you have read were largely written by women? Did you even know that the first British person to go into space, Helen Sharman, was a woman?

Powerful, influential and successful women are derided by public opinion; they are measured by the virtue of how pleasing their appearances are and, inevitably, any outstanding contributions they make to society are succinctly diminished until their conquests barely existed at all.

And yes, to all of the naysayers and internet trolls (super cool individuals with full and gratifying lives), this is still happening: case-in-point, freelance journalist and campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez who successfully campaigned against the almighty force that is the Bank of England and won women a place on the ten pound note, after they decided to remove social reformer Elizabeth Fry from the five pound note. It is not only a victory for the people but one of symbolic worth, seeing as though an everyday woman (i.e. not her royal Madge) had only made the cut for the lowest common denominator amongst bank notes before; doubling a woman’s value is a big promotion. Jane Austen, the prolific author of classics such as ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Sense and Sensibility’, was added to the ranks of esteemed men deemed worthy of gracing the UK’s legal tender – but even she had to adopt a male name to achieve her virulent literary success.

What Caroline Criado-Perez did was revolutionary. She took on one the most ancient and powerful institutions in Great Britain and won. The response from many members of the public was congratulatory, but many others chose to attack an innocent woman in the wake of her success; at its peak, she received over fifty threats of violence, torture, rape and murder each day from internet trolls. These people may have been making empty threats, but what they really meant to say to Criado-Perez was this: “How dare you express your opinion? How dare you challenge a man’s authority? Stop making a fuss and shut up; nobody likes a woman with a big mouth. I’m a nasty little bully with nothing else better to do than to try and make you feel small. Oh, and BTW, you’re an ugly bitch, so what use are you to anybody?”

The plan was to degrade Criado-Perez to such an extent that she gave up campaigning, but the plan failed. We have to tiptoe around these cretinous people, maniacs who think it is okay to threaten to cut off a law abiding citizen’s head and breasts, amongst other grizzly things, just because they are sitting behind a computer screen. We do so out of a fear of being branded as misandrists or whiney bitches, but I for one believe that thousands of years of misogynist abuse is enough to warrant the arrest of a few socially decrepit individuals. It’s about time that society stood up against the harassment of women, not just online but in everyday life. Let’s face it, if this kind of thing happened in public we’d be worried about whether said internet trolls were up and coming serial killers, because truly, what sane person finds joy in such a pastime?

The absence of women from UK currency is just one of the countless examples whereby women are underrepresented; it is a tiny thread in a spider web of inequalities facing western women. The decision to take Elizabeth Fry off of the five pound note was just one of countless examples whereby the work of women is undervalued and overlooked; if we continue to let these apparently insignificant things slide women will continue to be the oppressed sex.

This time things will be different; Caroline Criado-Perez will be remembered for her good deeds and hailed as a pioneer for women’s equality. Let’s revel in her phenomenal achievement, celebrate all the wonderful men and women who contributed to her campaign, and look forward to many more future successes in the face of unfathomable adversity.

By Lora Jury

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