Jane Austen on Britain’s tenner highlights lack of diversity on U.S. currency

Surely we can stipulate that it really is all about the Benjamins now. (See: Daddy, Puff et al., circa 1997.)

But might it one day be all about the Oprahs?

The Brits — no, not those royal baby-making Brits all over the television, but the ones who run the bank — prompt us to consider the question. On Wednesday, they proclaimed that Jane Austen will be the new face opposite Her Majesty the Queen on their “tenner,” the 10-pound note.

The announcement about the author of “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility” by the Bank of England blew the minds of headline writers all over the world into tiny little bits: “Pounds and Prejudice.” “Cents and Sensibility.” “BOE Tackles Prejudice.”

Please, make them stop.

Behind all those puns is a simple idea that feminist activists in England promoted via a petition drive: too many old white guys on paper money.

Anything familiar here?

America has its own phalanx of old white guys on its paper money — not just the image of Benjamin Franklin on the $100 bill that hip-hop star Puff Daddy found so inspiring for his song “It’s All About the Benjamins.” But also an assortment of awesomely wigged national icons and gravitas-emitting historic figures. Yet no women. No minorities. All white guys. (Yes, there is a Susan B. Anthony coin. But when’s the last time you used one of those?)

America has grown pretty comfortable with its money men. We’ve been using the same portraits since 1929, according to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Even hinting at changes can lead to a tsunami of vitriol. This, Richard Smith knows. The New York-based consultant, now a creative director for a brand engagement firm, held a U.S. currency design competition in 2009.

Granted, some of the submissions were, well, creative. Jack Nicholson. Superman. Barbie. But many hewed toward honoring American institutions (Hollywood, the space industry) or heroes (Amelia Earhart, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.).

Smith, who thought new currency would stimulate the economy and improve America’s image abroad, got strafed by angry e-mails. He was anti-American, unpatriotic. They called him names. “I’m not sure there’s anything I could say that would be publishable,” he says in an interview.

It took Caroline Criado-Perez, the feminist writer and activist behind the British currency petition drive, only a second or two to come up with a face she’d like to see on U.S. currency. “Hillary Clinton!” Criado-Perez blurted out on her cellphone while racing between interviews celebrating her big Bank of England victory.

“Oh, do they have to be dead?” she asks.

That would be a yes. It’s right there in U.S. law.

Later, she tosses out another — appropriately deceased — suggestion: Edith Wharton, the American novelist who so artfully skewered the upper classes.

But Criado-Perez shouldn’t expect to see a Wharton ten-spot, or whatever it might be called, anytime soon. Back in the 1920s, a committee appointed by the Treasury secretary was perfectly clear about who should be on our money. Or was it? “It was determined that portraits of Presidents of the United States have a more permanent familiarity in the minds of the public than any others,” reads a history of U.S. currency on the Bureau of Engraving and Printing’s spectacularly named Web site, www.moneyfactory.gov.

Got it. So, dead presidents on money. But wait a minute. What about Franklin, the inventor? And Alexander Hamilton, the Treasury secretary, on the $10 bill?

Never mind, the engraving and printing crowd seems to say, somewhat stiffly: “Treasury Department records do not reveal the reason that portraits of these particular statesmen were chosen in preference to those of other persons of equal importance and prominence.”

The Mystery of Hamilton and Franklin.

Which brings us back to the Brits, whose intentions seem in­cred­ibly clear right now. Austen bumps Charles Darwin from the tenner. In a sense, they’re just balancing ledgers. Earlier this year, a lot of British feminists were outraged that Winston Churchill bumped one of their heroines, the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, from their “fiver.”

The British periodically swap out historical figures on their money, in part as a security measure, so there will be more debates to be had. They even publish a list of the public’s suggestions, a list that included Jane Austen.

Maybe next time they’ll really get our attention by picking another name on that list: that topless equestrian, Lady Godiva.

Manuel Roig-Franzia is a writer in The Washington Post’s Style section. His long-form articles span a broad range of subjects, including politics, power and the culture of Washington, as well as profiling major political figures and authors.
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