LONDON — If money talks, then in Britain it has a decidedly baritone voice. And that, many say, is a scandal.
Three months ago, the Bank of England announced that Winston Churchill had been chosen as the new face of the 5-pound note, in recognition of "a truly great British leader, orator and writer … a hero of the entire free world." Starting in 2016, Churchill's jowly mug will peer out pugnaciously from the back of what is probably Britain's most widely used bill, worth about $7.50.
But the decision has riled thousands of women here (and not a few men). No disrespect to the cigar-chomping, wartime prime minister, they say. But his portrait will replace that of Elizabeth Fry, a 19th century prison reformer, which means that no female figure from Britain's past will appear anywhere on its currency — only the present queen, who is there by convention and by accident of birth, not by merit.
This is a nation whose most important prime minister of the last 50 years was a woman (Margaret Thatcher). Its longest-serving monarch was a woman (Queen Victoria), whose record of nearly 64 years on the throne may soon be beaten by another woman (Elizabeth II). The world's bestselling author of all time is a British woman (Agatha Christie), as is the one in recent history (J.K. Rowling).
Yet nobody of their gender has been deemed worthy of being added onto British money, a situation that Caroline Criado-Perez finds morally bankrupt.
"It's another instance of women's contributions being wiped out," she said. "It's something everyone will see whether they consciously notice it or not. It's in everyone's wallet, and we see it every day."
True, Queen Elizabeth II's smiling face graces every bill printed and every coin minted in Britain. But that's entirely because of her position as monarch, not personal or professional accomplishment, and her job is not one that women can realistically aspire to or work hard to achieve, except for Kate Middleton.
"Let's not forget the queen wouldn't even be there if she'd had a brother," Criado-Perez said. "It just sends out a really damaging message that women haven't achieved much and they can't achieve much."
Criado-Perez, a freelance journalist, has launched a campaign to restore at least a little bit of gender balance to the great and good depicted on British currency, which she says is mandated by anti-sexism legislation. More than 30,000 people have signed her online petition so far, and dozens of female members of Parliament have joined in the call for redress.
This month, dozens of protesters dressed up as famous women in British history and rallied outside the Bank of England's august headquarters in central London. Emmeline Pankhurst, who agitated for the right to vote, was a favored choice among the costumed demonstrators; Boadicea, Britain's ancient warrior-queen, also put in a slightly forbidding appearance.
The controversy scuttled any hopes that the Bank of England's Mervyn King might have had of spending his final days as its governor in a warm bath of unalloyed admiration. Instead, activists and columnists kept up a cold shower of criticism, even after King hinted, before stepping down at the end of June, that novelist Jane Austen was strongly in the running to supplant Charles Darwin on the 10-pound bill.
"I think it is extremely unlikely that we will ever find ourselves with no women [from history] on our bank notes," said King.
That was too vague an assurance for campaigners, who have succeeded in making their cause one of the first items on the agenda of King's successor, Mark Carney.
Parliament member Mary Macleod pointedly reminded Carney of "the vital role that women play in public life and in our economy."
"What irony it is that, on the very notes that we earn and spend, we will now see no [historical] women at all," which would leave "a chasm where there once was inspiration," Macleod wrote in a letter.
Carney responded by pledging to bring up the issue at a bank meeting to be held Wednesday and to make a decision by month's end.
"I believe that our notes should celebrate the diversity of great British historical figures," said Carney, who is Canadian.
Portraits of famous Britons other than the monarch began popping up on bills in 1970; the first was William Shakespeare. Since then, only two women have made the cut: Fry and nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale. Churchill will be the 14th man, joining the likes of author Charles Dickens, economist Adam Smith and composer Edward Elgar.
The selection process is opaque and closed to the public. The bank lists "broad name recognition" as a requirement for those it picks, though probably not one Brit in a thousand could tell you who Matthew Boulton was (an 18th century engineer) and not one in 10,000 could identify John Houblon (the Bank of England's first governor). Both men have adorned the 50-pound note.
For that matter, few people could probably identify Elizabeth Fry, the woman currently featured on the fiver. Even Criado-Perez confesses to knowing little about her or her work in penal reform.
But there are plenty of other women, both well-known and unsung, who have made important contributions to British or world history and deserve a spot on a bank note, activists say. One frequently cited as a prime candidate is Rosalind Franklin, the scientist now acknowledged to have played a key role in the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA, despite most of the credit — and the Nobel Prize — going to her male colleagues, James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins.
The Bank of England shouldn't fall prey to the same sour sexism, said Criado-Perez. As someone with an English degree, she would be delighted if Jane Austen were the next woman chosen.
"It's a real shame that the public perception of her is of a good, quiet little woman scribbling away," Criado-Perez said. "She really wasn't. She wrote incredibly complex, subtle novels that were incredibly satirical and very, very carefully constructed.
"The more carefully you read her, the more you're blown away by her intelligence. I think she's a great example of women's writing and what women can achieve."