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Victorian prison reformer Elizabeth Fry appears on the back of the five-pound note released into circulation in Britain May 21, 2002. Fry is only the second woman to appear on the back of an English banknote and replaced inventor George Stephenson, depicted on older notes. (Reuters)
Victorian prison reformer Elizabeth Fry appears on the back of the five-pound note released into circulation in Britain May 21, 2002. Fry is only the second woman to appear on the back of an English banknote and replaced inventor George Stephenson, depicted on older notes. (Reuters)

U.K. banknote image sparks gender debate Add to ...

Mark Carney will face plenty of challenges when he takes over as Governor of the Bank of England next month, including setting interest rates, regulating banks and monitoring the economy. But there’s one more challenge looming that’s proving to be just as sensitive: putting a woman back on British pound notes.

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In April, Mr. Carney’s predecessor Sir Mervyn King announced that Winston Churchill would replace 19-century prison reformer Elizabeth Fry on the £5 note. “Our banknotes acknowledge the life and work of great Britons,” Sir Mervyn said at the time. “Sir Winston Churchill was a truly great British leader, orator and writer. Above that, he remains a hero of the entire free world.”

The decision meant that no woman, other than the Queen, would be featured on British banknotes. Portraits on the other bills include Charles Darwin on the £10; Adam Smith, the £20; steam-engine inventors Matthew Boulton and James Watt on a new £50; and the Bank’s first Governor John Houblon who is on an older version of the £50 note released in 1994 to celebrate the Bank’s 300th anniversary.

Sir Mervyn’s announcement infuriated Caroline Criado-Perez, a student at the London School of Economics who studies gender research. “I just got cross when I heard it,” she recalled in an interview. “It’s a symbol of how women’s contribution has been historically undervalued.”

Ms. Criado-Perez, 28, didn’t just get angry. She started an online petition to bring Ms. Fry back, which has collected more than 28,000 signatures so far, and she launched a legal challenge under Britain’s Equality Law. That legislation requires government agencies to take equality issues into account when shaping policy and carrying out their duties. Ms. Criado-Perez said the lawsuit will force the Bank to explain how it came to the decision and whether it paid any regard to equality issues.

The Bank hasn’t said much, other than insisting that the decision about who to put on a banknote rests solely with the Governor, who takes recommendations from the public into account. In a statement, the Bank added that the selection of Sir Winston “followed an evaluation of four short-listed candidates.”

It did not identify the finalists, but indicated that aside from Sir Winston, two were men and one a woman. The female was picked as a “contingency candidate,” the Bank added, in the event there is an unforeseen problem, such as a spike in counterfeiting, so the Bank can rush out a new banknote. It also said the Governor takes into account whether a candidate had made a lasting contribution, whether he or she had broad name recognition and whether there was good artwork for a drawing.

None of that has satisfied Ms. Criado-Perez. She believes several women could be featured on British currency, such as scientist Rosalind Franklin who helped uncover the structure of DNA or women’s rights advocate Mary Wollstonecraft. She pointed out that women have been shortchanged on banknotes ever since the Bank began using historical figures in 1970. Fourteen have been men and only two women: Ms. Fry and Florence Nightingale who was on the £10 note from 1975 to 1994.

Ms. Criado-Perez is now focusing her attention on Mr. Carney and hoping that he will reverse Sir Mervyn’s decision. She plans to contact Mr. Carney as soon as he takes over as Governor on July 1 (Sir Mervyn is retiring).

“I’m hoping things might change when Mark Carney takes over,” she said. “I’m hoping he’s going to be a little more enlightened and see that this isn’t actually a very difficult thing to do. We’re just asking him to recognize that [who is on the banknotes] is an important decision.”

She also noted that Canada too has no women on its currency other than the Queen. But she said that gives Mr. Carney even more of a chance to set himself apart. “We’re hoping he is going to see this as an opportunity for him to make a sea change at the Bank and say ‘We’re going to do things differently.’”

Editor's note: Due to an editing error, the print version of this article and the original online version of this article used incorrect forms of address for Sir Winston Churchill and Sir Mervyn King. This online version has been corrected.

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