Sunday Salon: Women on banknotes? Oh my.

The Sunday Salon

So there’s been a bit of controversy lately about women on UK banknotes, or rather the lack of them. It began in April when the Bank of England announced that from 2016, Winston Churchill will replace Elizabeth Fry on the £5 note. This caused a bit of an upset because Fry is currently the only woman on any of the four UK banknotes. In fact, the announcement led people to take a look at the full list of figures ever featured on our banknotes and notice that women have always had pretty low representation. Which started a whole equal representation campaign.

Following this campaign, this week the Bank of England announced that the next £10 note will feature Jane Austen (also in 2016). So that’s alright then, isn’t it? They’ve picked a historically significant woman, and a writer to boot. I should be thrilled!

The thing is, Jane Austen is not the woman I would have chosen. She’s not even the writer I would have chosen and I’d probably have leaned toward woman scientist over woman writer, to be honest. Rosalind Franklin, Ada Lovelace, Dorothy Hodgkin – they all have a much stronger case for how much they contributed to the betterment of society and as role models than Jane Austen, surely?

But that’s not to say that literature can’t contribute to society. Clearly I don’t believe that. Perhaps it’s because I’m not an Austen fan, but she’s just never seemed particularly revolutionary to me. She was a woman, yes, and that in itself was unusual for the time. But that can’t be enough to make her an admirable figure. She wrote about a very narrow section of society. I hate to repeat the trope that she only wrote about money and marriage, but there is something in that accusation.

So which woman writer would I choose? Obviously she must be British and meet the other Bank of England criteria (which are currently under review, following the whole Churchill debacle). Well, I’m not the biggest George Eliot fan either (I loved Silas Marner, was less thrilled with Silly Novels by Lady Novelists and gave up on The Mill on the Floss – but that was a long time ago so please don’t judge me!) but she certainly seems to have covered a lot more of British society than Austen. I am a fan of Virginia Woolf and she was central to an artistic movement (Modernism), co-founded a publishing house (Hogarth Press) and contributed a lot to the growth of feminism. However, she might be considered too controversial for the Bank of England, between her bisexuality, depression and suicide. I hope not.

Which British female historical figures do you think deserve to be honoured on our banknotes? Do any novelists rank up there for you? Do you think this is even a debate that needs to happen or do you shy away from positive discrimination? I’d love to hear your thoughts.