Speaking Up For Women

-jane-austen-bank-noteDespite all the advances that have been made over many decades, society is still plagued by female misrepresentation and lack of equality. Former Oundle School pupil, Caroline Criado-Perez’s recent success in reintroducing a female figure to a British banknote faced a vicious backlash, and serves as a reminder of the evident prejudices that still exist.

When Criado-Perez returned to school for the first time to address the Sixth Form about why feminism matters, the mixed gender audience was apprehensive, to say the least. I had the fortunate opportunity to further interview her, and find out more about her views.

Criado Perez did not call herself feminist while a pupil at Oundle. She used to attribute the term to ‘whiny, man-hating, hairy women’, which she knows now is due to common misconceptions in the media. Nevertheless, she felt that the ‘sexual politics of the school weren’t very conducive for the girls to feel like they could achieve’. Her English degree at Oxford was ‘far more informative’, however, and she discovered feminism whilst studying literature.

Criado-Perez was prompted to campaign for a female figure to be reintroduced on a bank note after the Bank of England decided to replace Elizabeth Fry on the £5 note with Sir Winston Churchill. The change would have meant that there would be no women represented on any British currency, other than the figurehead of the Queen.

Outraged, she challenged the Bank to meet its legal obligation to fulfil the Equality Act 2010. ‘There’s not really any way which you can choose to have an all-male anything and be proving equality of opportunity,’ she said.

Having roused the support of 35,000 petitioners, Criado-Perez won her case, and on July 24th 2013, the Bank of England made the decision to place Jane Austen on the £10 note, to be released in 2017.

With many more pressing issues to deal with, her critics dismissed the cause as insignificant, a mere piece of paper. She said, however: ‘It was never specifically about the bank note, it was about female representation’. A bank note is something that we handle every day.

The issue blew up unexpectedly when she received extreme verbal harassment on Twitter following the announcement by the Bank, with up to 50 threats an hour at the worst point, most of which threatened death or violent sexual assault. Other prominent women who spoke up in her defence, such as Mary Beard and Stella Creasey MP received similar abuse. While some people advised her to shut down her account, Criado-Perez continued to defend herself against the attackers. She said: ‘It was really important to me to put on a show of defiance. I wasn’t going to be shut up by these people, because that was their aim.’

Nevertheless, she eventually had to step back from the social networking site for a bit. ‘It was just too awful. You can only take so many people threatening things that are unrepeatable.’ Since then, three of the Twitter trolls who sent abuse to her have been prosecuted and given custodial sentences.

Her ideal choices for a woman on the banknote would have been Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Seacole or Rosalind Franklin. Although she did not suggest Jane Austen, she was amused by the assumption that the 19th century author was ‘safe’ and ‘conservative’ choice. Criado laughed, ‘The reality couldn’t be more different, she is a very feminist choice. She is the perfect choice for a campaign which was about female under-representation.’

To illustrate this point she pointed out the ratio of ten men to one woman represented in media as pundits and experts, and the lack of women in the Houses of Parliament, where there are five men for every woman: ‘Males are the standard and women deviate from it.’

One of her action points has been a new website, The Women’s Room, which has collected a database of women who are experts in their field and who can be called upon for interviews, debates and discussion on broadcasts such as Newsnight or the Today programme.

According to The Women’s Room: ‘The media says that there just aren’t that many female experts around, and the media just reflects the reality of the world. This website is about proving them wrong.’

Social media certainly played a large role in her recent success: ‘It’s amazing for campaigning, gathering groups together and getting a huge number of people behind an idea.’

Despite the dark side that can emerge on social media, Criado-Perez remains upbeat about its potential. ‘If you believe in something strongly and you want it to change, then barriers today to be able to do that are lower than they have ever been. All you need is access to a petition website and a social media website and you can start spreading the message.’

By Lucy Ing