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Lucy Mangan: "Jane Austen on a ten pound note? It’s just the start"

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"I like to imagine how the first discussion at the Bank of England about revamping our paper currency went. I suspect it went something like this:

MERVYN KING: So I’m thinking of taking that woman off the fiver and popping Churchill on there, ’kay?

SUIT 1: Instead of the Queen?

MERV: No, dumbcluck. The bird on the other side. Elizabeth something.

SUIT 2: The Second? That’s the Queen, sir.

MERV: No, no, imbeciles, the other side. Elizabeth Fry, that’s it! Who was she, anyway? Anyone know? [Silence. Eventually, SUIT 3 raises a cautious hand.]

SUIT 3: I think she was a prison reformer, sir. Quite influential in her day, I believe. Transformed life for thousands with her campaigning for better treatment for the poor. Sir.

MERV: Did she win any world wars? Write any speeches? No? Right then, Winston it is.

And just like that, the only woman of note on our currency was gone. No, the Queen doesn’t count – she’s there by accident of birth, not achievement. It’s the other side – the celebratory, we-recogniseand- honour-your-worldchanging- accomplishments side – that matters.

That this could happen in 2013 at the Bank of England – a public body with, therefore, a responsibility to act in the spirit of equality – shows how far this crazy idea of egalitarianism still has to travel.

But of course, what can also happen in 2013 is a quick, huge and well-organised protest via social media. And so it went here. Journalist Caroline Criado-Perez started an online petition to keep a woman – just the one, if we may – on our currency. It swiftly gathered over 35,000 signatures. Now the Bank of England (now headed by Mark Carney – Merv retired shortly after igniting the £5 touchpaper) has announced that Jane Austen will replace Charles Darwin on the £10 note in 2017.

As an Austen fan, I’m delighted, though I still think it’s a) a bit tough on Darwin, who did revolutionise Western thinking, after all, and b) arguable that having a talent for writing, however enormous, is less worthy of celebration than the strength and determination shown by trailblazers like Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the UK’s first female doctor, and mathematician Ada Lovelace. But I am both nitpicking and wary of antagonising Janeites, who tend to be not only dangerously passionate but, under their petticoats and bonnets, heavily armed with weaponised bon mots and satirical glances, so we’ll leave it there.

Like that, the only woman on our notes was gone

And anyway, the best and most important part of this story is, I think, that it marks the moment we can announce with certainty that Fourth Wave Feminism, or Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves – Via Social Media and the Harnessing of the Essentially Democratic Impulse It Both Signifies and Perpetuates, Hurrah! – is finally here. Though we may need to lose the ‘hurrah’. Makes it a bit unwieldy.

Those in the vanguard include Kat Banyard, the founder of ukfeminista.org.uk, the website that encourages grassroots feminist activism; Lucy-Anne Holmes, who launched the No More Page 3 campaign; Laura Bates, who set up the Everyday Sexism Project site to allow women to collate their common experiences of prejudice and harassment; and Sophie Bennett of object.org.uk, which aims to challenge the normalisation of women as sex objects in our culture, and is spearheading the Lose The Lads’ Mags campaign.

A few years ago, people were bemoaning the death of feminism. But now it seems that the new generation was building up a head of steam while figuring out how best to use the new tools at its disposal. And now they are putting them to work; and in a way that is accessible to all in a way that previous iterations of feminism (often criticised, fairly and unfairly, for being dominated by white, middle-class women) weren’t.

This is good. This is progress. Now we need to build on it. Work out an ideology, a philosophy around which we can cohere and which others can understand and – hopefully – join with. That’s how piecemeal campaigns become movements. In the meantime, I’d like to start just one more, at itsbeen43yearssincetheequal payactandwerestillnotthere.com, to ensure we get our full share of those lovely new £10 notes.”

Image credit: Rex Features

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