Much as I love Jane Austen, I admit to having my doubts about the extent to which the decision to have her featured on £10 bank notes from 2017 can be called a feminist victory. I do agree with the basis for the original campaign: the loss of Elizabeth Fry from the £5 notes, to be replaced with Winston Churchill, would initially have meant that no female historical figures or their achievements would be celebrated on this very public medium. However, what bothers me is the implication that any one historically important woman can simply be replaced with any other. Elizabeth Fry was a prison reform campaigner, Jane Austen was a novelist: both as people and in terms of their social and historical significance, they are worlds apart. The acceptance of one being traded in for the other seems to suggest that what we are celebrating here is their womanhood, rather than their achievements – men are lauded for what they do, women stand out because they are women who have done something (anything?). Of course the campaign was right in protesting the removal of the only woman represented, in favour of a man – but whence came the suggestion that accurate representation of famous historical figures requires a ratio of 1:4, with a single woman providing all the required balance against four famous men? Why is the idea of having two women represented in a single issue of currency so impossible to contemplate?
Despite my wish to qualify my support for this particular campaign, however, I cannot but give my full and wholehearted support to its key campaigner, Caroline Criado-Perez, founder of The Women’s Room UK. As I said, she was right in standing up to the elimination of women from a medium that celebrates figures of great social and historical import to British history. And, as appears, sadly, to be increasingly common, she endured the most horrific abuse for making this simple – and, as the insertion of the prettified Victorian portrait of Jane Austen confirms, unthreatening – point. The amount of rape and murder threats she was faced with on Twitter led to a petition for a ‘report abuse’ button on the site, since the system previously in use was far too slow to respond to the barrage of intimidation the Twittersphere directed at her, as at many other feminist campaigners. A ‘report abuse’ button was introduced on Twitter’s latest iPhone app about two weeks ago, with promises from the site managers to expand the function.
I said it appears increasingly common for campaigners like Criado-Perez to receive similar abuse: many female public figures, from TV presenters such as Mary Beard and Clare Balding to feminist writers such as Suzanne Moore and Zoe Williams, will attest to the fact that platforms created by the internet, although they provide many original new voices with an audience and have democratised knowledge to a significant extent, also introduce a new vulnerability for those people who use them to make themselves heard. Particularly Twitter makes its users very accessible to any troll who bothers to look up their account, and very little can be done to stop their messages from reaching their target.
Unfortunately, as I keep finding in my research, the internet has only facilitated an ignorant impetus which has always existed, and emerges every time a privileged group feels its position threatened by a less-privileged group seeking equality through self-representation on a mainstream platform. An obvious example is the flood of hate mail Emily Wilding Davison received in the four days during she was dying of the injuries she sustained in her attempt to affix a suffragette banner to the King’s horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby. But earlier campaigners for women’s rights also faced threats, on a much more personal level, and delivered in a manner that intruded their personal lives, than the expected attacks in the popular media. Annie Besant, in her campaign to democratise birth control, announced in court as she defended herself in the Knowlton trial of 1877 that she knew full well she was risking her reputation, the most valuable asset for a female public figure during the period. Besant tried to pre-empt the damage she knew her reputation would suffer, but in fact much of the public coverage of her campaign work helped her cause by bringing the birth control debate into the public sphere. Furthermore, she was already an experienced campaigner by this point, and was supported in court by her male colleague, Charles Bradlaugh, who would later go on to become a Liberal MP. She was helped, too, by the jury’s wavering verdict which she summed up as ‘Not guilty, but don’t do it again’. Nevertheless, a year later her estranged husband used her public appearance as a campaigner for birth control to deprive her of the custody of her daughter.
Other contemporary campaigners, however, were faced with a more immediate personal struggle similar to that which feminist activists are still obliged to engage in today. Josephine Butler was the perfect figure of a Victorian matron, the wife of a cleric, with a strong background in hands-on social work in the Victorian tradition of expanding the middle-class woman’s domestic sphere to include the needy and vulnerable in the wider community. However, when she stood up to defend the legal, political and bodily human rights of prostitutes, the broad support for her very vocal campaign was marred by persecution, social ostracism, and personal threats which would be delivered to her home and to the places she stayed at during her lecturing tours. Although her insistence that all women be granted their constitutional rights regardless of their social position or how they earned their living was entirely in keeping with the increasingly popular Liberal political philosophy, its context required her to address the prevalence and institutionalisation of the sexual double standard – and as a result, she faced opponents very similar to those defending the sex and porn industries today. Her campaign necessarily denied the common notion that prostitution was inevitable because men could not control their sexual urges, and the inherent acceptance that some ‘unhappy creatures’ would have to be sacrificed to them, becoming commodified and losing their status as human beings with human rights as a result.
However, Butler, like most other brave feminist activists today, did not allow the abuse she faced to deter her in any real sense. While to anyone who has suffered such a level of abuse and intimidation Butler’s qualification of them, in her memoirs some thirty years later, as ‘light and easy to bear’ in comparison to the impossibility of remaining silent and inactive in the face of injustice, will seem overly tolerant and dismissive, Butler’s refusal to be intimidated by her Victorian trolls is inspiring: she states boldly,
‘The call to action, the field of battle entered, with all its perils and trials clearly set out before us, were a joyful relief, a place of free breathing, compared with the oppression and the heart-woe which went before.’ (Personal Reminiscences of a Great Crusade, 1898: 8)
I contend that her resistance to the privileged groups attempting to stop her and her fellow campaigners from pursuing their own goals and speaking out on public platforms on an equal basis not only brought to light the iniquity of the Contagious Diseases Acts, but also contributed greatly to the social and political emancipation of middle-class women in Britain.
Who knows, she might even find her way onto our bank notes one day. I rather fancy her as the face of the £20 note.