WHEN Mary Slessor was 14, she was working a 12-hour day in a jute mill in Dundee.
By the time she was 44, she was living in Okoyong, in Ethiopia, establishing social change amongst the populous, encouraging trade, introducing education, adopting orphans and saving the lives of hundreds of sets of twins, who were often abandoned by their families. She probably worked a 12-hour day there too.
I am often reminded of Slessor, and who she was, because she appears on the Clydesdale Bank £10 note. She’s been there, with her slightly stern expression and sorrowful eyes, since 1998. Slessor was a pioneer in many ways during her lifetime, but even in death she paved the way. Because she was, 15 years ago, the first woman to appear on a Scottish banknote, and has quietly stayed there ever since.
There has been something of a hoopla across the Border recently about women on banknotes. When the Bank of England announced it would be removing prison reformer Elizabeth Fry from the current £5 note and replacing her with Winston Churchill – meaning an all-male lineup – women everywhere protested. What sort of message did it send to ourselves and to the world if we didn’t think even one woman was important enough to our heritage to be commemorated on a banknote?
In Scotland, Slessor is not the only woman to appear on a Clydesdale banknote. In 2009, Elsie Inglis, the doctor and suffragist who founded her own medical college, opened her own hospital, campaigned for votes for women and then set up hospitals across the Western Front during the First World War before dying of cancer in 1917, was placed on the £50 note.
It might seem trivial, getting worked up about whether a woman is on a banknote or not, but those small, coloured pieces of paper have a unique place in society. When we go abroad they are one of the first things we see. Every single one of us handles them almost every day. They are not only ubiquitous, they are essential. And they need to reflect the society they support.
So is it churlish then, that I feel a little despondent that out of all the incredible women Britain has produced, and had the opportunity to put on a banknote, the Bank of England has plumped for the author Jane Austen? Just a few months ago, all the candidates for commemoration were men, and it is only thanks to a sustained campaign led by Caroline Criado-Perez, founder of the Women’s Room – who has been much in the news in the past few days after it was revealed she was the target of horrifying rape threats on Twitter after her admirable work getting the Bank of England to change its mind – that Austen will appear on the note at all.
This has not been an easy battle. And the likes of Criado-Perez, who has admirably refused to back down in the face of the abuse (an arrest has been made in the case, a petition calling for a “report abuse” button on Twitter has attracted tens of thousands of signatures and Twitter has now said it will consider introducing one) are only to be admired.
But still. Austen? Her of the prissy comedies of manners? Her of the lacy bonnets and the twee tea-parties and the women whose lives revolved around social constructs and marriage?
I know, of course, that some women (and men) adore Austen’s writings, and will argue until they are blue in the face that she was a feminist. But there are so many other women writers out there one could have said the same thing of. From George Eliot to Mary Wollstencraft, Christina Rossetti to Mary Shelley, Austen was far from the only woman who could have fit, quite literally, the bill.
Of course part of the problem is that no one woman can ever represent all women, and nor should she have to. Part of the reason women like Slessor and Inglis are remembered is that it was so unusual for women to attain the achievements they did, and they did it by being smarter and better than the men around them. They were the exceptions, never the rule. True equality means being equal in all things. The Bank of England may be patting itself on the back right now for booting Charles Darwin off the new £5 note in order to make way for Austen, but she’ll still be the only woman on an English note. And we may have women on two of our Clydesale banknotes in Scotland, but that is only two out of ten. We still, it seems, have a long way to go.