Feminist banknotes

British feminist Caroline Criado-Perez recently launched a campaign to ensure that women were depicted on British banknotes. It was successful: the Bank of England decided that Jane Austen will appear on the new ten pound note from 2017. Officials told Caroline Criado-Perez that the decision was “a direct result of the campaign”. The campaign illustrates the nature of nationalist feminism, and its conservative effects.

The campaign used an online petition at the website change.org, which attracted 36 000 signatures and much publicity. In her introduction, Caroline Criado-Perez misled the public, suggesting that women would disappear from banknotes in Britain:

Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England, has announced Winston Churchill will replace social reformer Elizabeth Fry as the face of £5 notes. This means that, other than the Queen, there will be no women featuring on our English bank notes. An all-male line-up on our banknotes sends out the damaging message that no woman has done anything important enough to appear.

However, despite its name, the Bank of England is the central bank of the United Kingdom. There are no ‘English’ banknotes, because England is not a sovereign state. Under supervision of the Bank of England, commercial banks in Scotland and Northern Ireland also issue banknotes, and they do feature other women. They are not being withdrawn either, so women would have remained on ‘British banknotes’ even without the campaign by Caroline Criado-Perez.

The campaign was based on ideological assumptions, which are clear from the petition text. It warns of women being ‘airbrushed out of history’ by excluding them from the banknotes. However, the petition is about British women and British banknotes. There are women on other countries’ banknotes, but those women, those banknotes, and the central banks that issued them, are all ignored. It says a lot about entrenched chauvinism in Britain, that apparently no-one in the British media noticed this.

This nationalist perspective recurs throughout the petition. It speaks repeatedly of “our” banknotes and “our” history, which clearly refer to English or British history. Caroline Criado-Perez would not clarify which exactly, so I will assume that they refer to Britain. (The perspective would be no less nationalist, if they referred to England).

For instance, the petition speaks of “an all-male line-up on our banknotes” which would send the “damaging message that no woman has done anything important enough to appear”. Since women do appear on other countries banknotes, and the petition is addressed to the British central bank, this evidently refers to the message that British banknotes send to British public. Phrases such as “women’s considerable achievements being overlooked in favour of the usual (male) suspects” evidently refer to British women. Indeed, Caroline Criado-Perez proposed only British women for inclusion on future banknotes (Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Seacole and Rosalind Franklin).

Caroline Criado-Perez also believes that is it necessary for young British women to see British women on British banknotes, to serve as role models, and encourage their participation in public life. The petition quotes only UK statistics in that respect:

“… young women growing up see a parliament that is 57th equal in the world when it comes to female representation; a media where only 1 in 5 experts is a woman; and a business world where female directors represent only 16.7% of the total.”

The theory of ‘role models’ has been criticised for overestimating their importance, and it is doubtful that figures on banknotes influence young people in that way. However, it is the nationalist perspective which is notable. Nation-states do indeed put national historical figures on their banknotes, to encourage identification with the nation. The petition, far from being an innovative feminist campaign, is entirely within that tradition.

Caroline Criado-Perez has apparently never even thought about the idea, that German or Chinese women might serve as role models for young women in Britain – if role models are needed. She thinks entirely in terms of the nation-state, where each generation identifies with previous generations of the same nation. She is herself half-Spanish, and it is well known that migrants and their first-generation children tend to over-identify with their new homeland. That does not explain why no commentators in Britain noticed the inherent nationalism, and indeed racism, of the petition.

Of course there is a political context to all this. Britain has a Eurosceptic majority, which is hostile to the introduction of the Euro. Support for the Pound as national currency is highly politicised, and a key indicator of right-wing sentiment. Making the national currency more inclusive – for instance by broadening the range of figures depicted on banknotes – is under those circumstances a conservative Eurosceptic strategy. If Caroline Criado-Perez really wanted the Bank of England to do something radical, she could have asked it to introduce the Euro overnight. (The Euro banknotes, incidentally, depict buildings instead of persons, although the new series has a watermark of the mythical Europa).

The petition is not only narrowly nationalist, but gives a false picture of the political and technical background. To start with, the Bank of England is not restricted to a handful of national heroes on its banknotes. It can issue multiple series, with for instance ten different versions of the £5 note.

In fact, the UK can go much further. Electronic payments are gradually displacing paper money and coins, and technology makes reliance on a single national series of banknotes obsolete. The introduction of the Euro provides an opportunity to switch to a multiple-currency system in Europe, with the Euro as core currency. EU member states can then retain popular national currencies, such as the Pound, parallel to the Euro. They could reintroduce them as parallel currency in response to nostalgic demand, as in Germany and the Netherlands. That system would also allow new parallel currencies, including a separate women’s currency.

A women’s currency would seem to be the logical aim of a feminist currency campaign. There would no longer be any question of women being under-represented on the banknotes: women would decide that for themselves. The campaign led by Caroline Criado-Perez, on the other hand, seems to be Euroscepticism masquerading as feminism.