In May 2013, a woman named Caroline Criado-Perez threatened the Bank of England with legal action when it decided to replace bills featuring Elizabeth Fry with Winston Churchill. It's not that Criado-Perez is an Elizabeth Fry fan. She's suing the bank for failing in its duties to eliminate gender discrimination under the Equality Act.
According to British national daily newspaper, The Guardian, the Queen of England and Elizabeth Fry are the only two women to ever appear on British banknotes. The others have all been men. Almost 30,000 people signed a petition – and 46 female members of parliament wrote letters to the Prime Minister and the Bank of England’s Court of Directors – demanding the bank keep Fry on its notes and advocating for more women to be represented on British currency. “An all-male line-up on our banknotes sends out the damaging message that no woman has done anything important enough to appear," the petition reads. "This is patently untrue."
Gender discrimination through paper currency isn’t just a British issue. It’s an American and Canadian one, too. Only two women have ever appeared on bills in the U. S. – Mary Washington and Pocahontas. We fared a bit better in Canada but only until 2011 when Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of Canada at the time, announced that an icebreaker would replace the images of five famous women on a new series of $50 bills.
Prior to Carney’s appointment in 2008, the bank earned praise and recognition for using the images of the “Famous Five” – a group of women who took a landmark case to the Supreme Court, then to Britain’s Privy Council in 1929, demanding to have women declared “persons” and making them eligible to sit in the Senate. When Carney announced the displacement of the Famous Five, it sparked a protest, led in part by Calgary City Council, to restore the image. The bank responded but it was too late to change the designs because they had already invested $20 million into the research, testing and development process of the new polymer notes.
The new series of polymer banknotes in Canada contains the image of one woman on the $100 bill – a medical researcher – and it appears Carney learned a valuable lesson. As the new Governor of the Bank of England, he acceded to protests in his first week on the job, announcing that the Bank of England had lined up Jane Austen to become the next historical figure presented on UK currency. Some are calling it “Carney’s epiphany.”
As long as women’s contributions continue to be ignored in the history of our country, as long as our banknotes continue to show a pronounced bias toward men, and as long as men continue to dominate the highest paying jobs and most top-level leadership positions, women won't be considered equal. We must stop treating women as an afterthought.
It's not just our banks that are failing women. The whole of western society is failing in its duty to eliminate gender discrimination.
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Debbie L. Kasman
Principal Newcastle Public School and Author of Lotus of the Heart: Reshaping the Human and Collective Soul