There has been a considerable debate in recent weeks following the announcement that Sir Winston Churchill will replace the social reformer Elizabeth Fry on the new £5 note to be issued by the Bank of England. According to Bank of England governor Sir Mervyn King, Churchill’s image will be accompanied by the quotation: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
Few people could object to the inclusion of Churchill – widely regarded as one of, if not the, greatest ever Briton – but it seems unfortunate that it’s at the expense of the only female meritocratic appointment. Obviously the Queen will continue to feature, but that is in her role of head of state.
The Women’s Room UK, the online campaign group, have launched a petition to keep a woman on UK banknotes, and rightly so, in our diverse society. Yet this theme of a lack of female representation is unfortunately reflected on other currencies. Across the Channel, the new five euro note will feature a woman. Sadly it is a mythical one, Europa, whose likeness is taken from a vase in the Louvre in Paris. Currently the United States exhibits an all-male cast on its currencies.
Since ancient times, money has always offered the potential to be omnipresent propaganda, featuring symbols designed to convey state messages and build nationalist feelings amongst citizens, as well as exhibit national values. This was as true for the rulers of Ancient Greece and Rome as nation states today. Money is truly a democratic form of propaganda, since it is omnipresent, universal, and can easily be carried by citizens across national boundaries, exporting these symbols. Having important figures from a nation’s past on such a commonly handled object is an important way of building national identity, and that identity needs to be inclusive. In 21st Century Britain, that means racial and gender equality, values of which we should be rightly proud.
Future revision may well see new images grace our currency. A recent poll in the Guardian suggested that Mary Wollstonecraft, the writer, philosopher and advocate of women’s rights, was the preferred female choice.
There are plenty of other iconic female figures that made an enormous impact on British history that would be excellent choices. Florence Nightingale appeared on £10 between 1975 and 1994, but perhaps her less well-known contemporary Mary Seacole may be a future addition. Jane Austen or Emeline Pankhurst both carry far more public recognition, if that is a factor.
Or, and only whisper this, but could Margaret Thatcher soon be carried in our wallets and pockets, with a quotation of “Just rejoice”?
I’d be delighted to hear any other suggestions in the comments below!