Jane Austen will be the face of the new £10 note, the Bank of England announced this afternoon.
The decision is a swift victory for equality campaigners who launched a protest just three months ago after the bank declared it would be replacing social reformer Elizabeth Fry - the only female historical figure on a banknote - with Winston Churchill.
In a second victory, the bank will also review the process it uses to select historical figures for banknotes in the future - a decision likely to be influenced by the threat of legal action by campaigners. Solicitors wrote to the bank in May threatening court action for its failure to consider equality laws in the way it decided which historical figures appeared on a note.
More than 35,000 people signed a petition complaining that replacing Fry with Churchill on the £5 note would wipe women from Britain’s history. The petition was handed into the Bank of England earlier this month.
Women’s Room founder, Caroline Criado-Perez, who led the campaign, said: “This is a brilliant day for women and a fantastic one for people power. Without this campaign, without the 35,000 people who signed our Change.org petition, the Bank of England would have unthinkingly airbrushed women out of history.
“We warmly welcome this move from the Bank and thank them for listening to us and taking such positive and emphatic steps to address our concerns; to hear Jane Austen confirmed is fantastic, but to hear the process will be comprehensively reviewed is even better.”
The author will replace Charles Darwin, the scientist who laid the foundations of the theory of evolution, on the £10 note.
The bank’s new Governor, Mark Carney, said: “Jane Austen certainly merits a place in the select group of historical figures to appear on our banknotes. Her novels have an enduring and universal appeal and she is recognised as one of the greatest writers in English literature. As Austen joins Adam Smith, Boulton and Watt, and in future, Churchill, our notes will celebrate a diverse range of individuals who have contributed in a wide range of fields.”
The Austen £10 note note will be issued within a year of the Churchill £5 note, which is expected to be in circulation by 2016.
The bank said that a review of its approach to, and criteria for, selecting characters who appear on banknotes was being undertaken “in the light of recent concerns” raised by campaigners. The decision was taken by the bank’s Court of at a meeting last week and the review will be overseen by Chris Salmon, the Bank’s executive director for banking services.
Governor Carney said: “We believe that our notes should celebrate the full diversity of great British historical figures and their contributions in a wide range of fields. The Bank is committed to that objective, and we want people to have confidence in our commitment to diversity. That is why I am today announcing a review of the selection process for future banknote characters.”
The review will examine “Whether [the bank] can take further steps to operate within the spirit of the Public Sector Equality Duty when deciding on future characters.” It will also re-examine the principles that guide the choice of historical characters, “given the need for the choices to command respect and legitimacy” - and how the process for choosing characters “could ensure, and be seen to ensure, the delivery of those principles”.
The former Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, had indicated that Austen was “waiting in the wings” to be on a banknote. The author of accomplished novels, including Pride and Prejudice and Emma, has been called England’s greatest writer since Shakespeare.
Jon Mee, Professor of English literature at the University of Warwick, said Austen was very deserving of the accolade: “She’s one of the great novelists of the Nineteenth century and one of the great novelists in English. Like Dickens she is someone who has recognition beyond a narrow literary audience; she’s a major British historical figure, even amongst those who have never read her novels.”
There have been 16 historical figures featured on banknotes since the portraits were introduced in 1970 – including only two women: Florence Nightingale was on the £10 note from 1975 to 1994, and in 2002, Fry was introduced on the £5 note.
Stella Creasy MP, who organised a letter from 46 Labour MPs to David Cameron in support of the campaign, said: “It’s great to hear that the Bank of England has listened to concerns on this, and the message removing women from our currency sends, and has acted to ensure we celebrate the contribution women have made to our nation in this way, as well reviewing the original decision-making process.”
Louise Whitfield, a lawyer who worked on the legal challenge, said: “It was very disappointing that it needed the threat of litigation to secure a sensible response from the Bank and that they refused to accept that who appears on banknotes was highly relevant to gender equality: this was blindingly obvious and shouldn’t have needed a lawyer to point it out. It is clear we need a statutory equality duty and the ability to enforce it in situations such as this.”