Foreign Policy Blogs

Pride and Prejudice and Banknotes

UK banknotes, courtesy Flickr/ Howard Lake (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Back in May I wrote about the derisively named “storm in a teacup” over the decision of the Bank of England to remove reformer Elizabeth Fry from the £5 note. Why this was controversial to some was that it meant that no women, apart from the monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, would appear on paper currency issued by the bank.

I also wrote about spirited campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez, who was hoping to take on the Bank of England and show them the negative implications of their actions. Her petition garnered over 35,000 signatures, and prompted a group of 46 Labour politicians and peers to call on the bank to review their selection process.

Whether it was already in the pipeline, or due to the groundswell of support Ms Criado-Perez was able to muster, incoming Governor, Mark Carney, recently announced that the new edition of the £10 note issued by the Bank would feature novelist Jane Austen. Of course, cue the derogatory comments: “The man who discovered evolution has been traded for a bitchy marriage-broker who never married.” With a somewhat more reasoned tone, the Guardian has an interesting discussion over whether Austen “deserves” a place on the £10 note; as Susie Boniface notes, “There are many banknote candidates who did more to change the world than Jane.”

Perhaps more importantly, Mark Carney announced that the selection process for deciding which figures should appear on future Bank of England notes would be reviewed and overhauled, as legitimacy and transparency are key factor in ensuring the Bank does not find itself caught up in future to-dos.

So far, so good. Activist takes on large state institution and wins. However, if that was where the words, “The End” belong, that would have us living in a fairytale world. Instead, a darker side to the story has emerged, one which possibly many of you reading this have been subject to.

After her efforts to bring this issue into the public eye, Ms Criado-Perez then received vicious and abusive messages via social media, most of which came from men threatening to rape her. As Ms Criado-Perez herself tweeted, “Have to say, anyone who can’t see that the banknotes clearly did matter considering they’ve inspired 8days [sic] of rape threats is pretty dim.” The Independent on Sunday writes that despite reporting the situation to the police and Twitter, Ms Criado-Perez was “still awaiting a substantive response.” So she decided to take on the trolls and, in her own words, “started shouting back.” It’s still continuing, should you wish to take a look at her Twitter feed, where she has been called an attention seeker for retweeting some nasty things tweeted to her. Another blogger commented that “The whole point of shouting back isn’t to create silence — it’s to challenge a culture which relies on most of the population voluntarily shutting the hell up, whether it’s out of fear, embarrassment or simply the desire not to make a fuss. Criado-Perez is making a fuss. She’s making a massive fuss and is, in the process, making herself more of a target. That this is happening should shame us, not her.”

Last night things got even more sinister as Criado-Perez and two (female) journalists received bomb threats, apparently the impetus needed for the London Metropolitan Police to start an investigation, though late last week, a man was arrested in Manchester on suspicion of taking part in the online abuse. MP Stella Creasy has also become entangled in the issue following her demonstration of support for the campaign, also receiving a barrage of rape threats.

The comment which for me best sums up the topics raised by this outpouring of abuse and harassment is from The F Word blog:

The real wonder in this Twitter-storm is the amount of time and effort Stella Creasy is having to spend painstakingly explaining to apparently well-educated and respected commentators that it’s not ok for a group of men to repeatedly threaten to rape her to death at a specific time and place. That it’s online, and – so far- there’s not been a documented case of the online misogynist trolls acting out a sadistically violent murder, seems to confuse several otherwise reasonable people. An accepted rule of thumb to answer ‘is it ok on twitter?’ is ‘how would you feel if someone did the same at the next table in the pub / on the train?’

It started with banknotes and reformer Elizabeth Fry. It’s not over yet, as Twitter is being pressured to review its reporting procedures, and it will probably be a long while before rape threats and other abusive behavior are seen as what they clearly are: completely unacceptable. It’s not a truth universally acknowledged, that a woman in the public sphere must of course be in want of a dressing down or humiliation. Until the deluded among us realize this, their prejudice is a source of social shame.



Cate Mackenzie

Cate works as an editor in Zürich, Switzerland. She holds an MA in Comparative and International Studies from ETH Zurich, and a BA (Hons) in International Studies with Political Science from the University of Birmingham (UK).

She has previously lived and worked in Fiji and the US.