Britannia, Jane Austen and the surprising tale of why money has long had a female face in England…

We usually are made to think/believe that finance is mainly “a men thing” and women are best kept out of the picture. However, this is not entirely true. This blog has written about women stock brokers  in early history of finance in NY. There must be evidence of their presence in other finance industries as well (for an unrelated area see women’s contribution in computer programming).

Following 2008 crisis, it was suggested that if there were more women in bank boards, may be banks would have been more stable. A recent paper does show this to be the case.

Now, Prof. Claudine van Hensbergen (Eighteenth-Century English Literature, Northumbria University, Newcastle) takes us further back in time. She reflects on the recent decision of Bank of England to print Jane Austin notes and says money has always had a female face in England:

Jane Austen enters circulation this month as the new face of the Bank of England £10 note. It is a fitting choice – as Austen increasingly passes through hands and wallets, the nation will be helped to remember that 2017 marks the 200th anniversary of the celebrated author’s death.

Yet Austen was not the first choice to grace the banknote. Four years ago, the Bank of England invited a storm of protest when it announced it was replacing the only woman on a British banknote – Elizabeth Fry – with a portrait of Winston Churchill. A petition was launched, accusing the bank of infringing the Equality Act and encouraging it to find a suitable female replacement.

The bank’s initial decision to efface women from its banknotes was not just potentially discriminatory, it also showed a lack of interest in the heritage of Britain’s currency. From the turn of the 18th century, when the British relationship with money began to take its modern shape, finance was gendered as female.

The most enduring face of British money over the centuries has been that of a woman: Britannia. In 1694, the newly-founded Bank of England decided that the image used as its common seal should be that of “Britannia sitting and looking on a bank of mon[e]y”.

Hmm…The Britannia series ran in India too.

So Austen is nothing new. It is part of UK history:

In these early days of public banking, Britain’s economy needed to be understood as a beautiful virgin if it was to be properly protected: it needed to be kept pure, free from party politics and other forms of financial corruption. Men controlled money, and it was their responsibility to secure its safety and health, just as it was their legal responsibility to secure that of their wives and daughters.

The satirical cartoonist, James Gillray, sought to make the same point at the close of the century. In 1797, he produced his famous image Political Ravishment or The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street in Danger, showing a female Bank of England. Dressed in newly issued bank notes, she recoils from the sexual advances of the prime minister, William Pitt the Younger. It is, of course, the bank’s money and not her ageing looks that drives Pitt on as he jangles gold coins from the pocket of her skirt.

The gendering of finance as female in the early days of banks doesn’t reveal, as we might first think, the empowerment of women. But it does remind us that early commentators like Addison, Hogarth and Gillray used gender to draw their public’s attention to a certain air of caution – a type of ethical and moral code – that should be applied to what William Wordsworth would, a century later, describe as our obsession with “getting and spending”.

So each time we encounter Jane Austen, in her beribboned cap, staring out at us from the £10 note, we should remember that in the cultural imagination women have long been represented as the face of credit. And early writers and artists gendered finance as female in order to remind us of the diligence and care we should take in protecting it.

 There is lot more in the article.
This is really interesting and something worth thinking about. How images are built overtime. In England, female face was the guardian of finance which was managed by men but had to respected. This reflected in the currency notes too. How we have moved away from this narrative over the years.
What is it in other countries? Independent India’s own record has been pretty poor on this front.

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