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My fight to see Jane Austen on a tenner...and how I won

Thanks to Caroline Criado-Perez the face of classic English novelist Jane Austen now graces the £10 note. Here, the writer explains why she took on the Bank of England

It was on a Friday that the Bank of England made me cross for the first time. I remember reading in the papers that it was releasing a new £5 note. I can't say I'd ever given their banknotes much thought before but this story struck me. The article I read explained that Winston Churchill, a personal hero of (the soon to be outgoing governor) Mervyn King, would be the face of the new fiver. He would be replacing the old face, who in the shape of prison reformer Elizabeth Fry just happened to be the only female historical figure on the entire range of banknotes.

I stewed on this news for much of the day. At the time I was already trying to combine studying for an MSc at the London School of Economics with running The Women's Room, an organisation I set up with a friend of mine to address the gender imbalance of experts in the media. I didn't really have time to take on another campaign.

Of course in the end I did what I always do when I get annoyed: I started the campaign anyway, hand-waving over the fact that I had coursework due in two days. In fact, it was partly as a result of The Women's Room that I couldn't let it go: setting it up had led me to research the impact of role models on women. I discovered evidence that role models had statistically significant impact on women's performance in maths tests, political engagement, academic course choices - even speech-giving ability. Knowing what I knew, I wasn't going to take this latest scrubbing out of women from public life laying down.

I was a fairly newly hatched feminist, and with the optimism of a new convert I felt sure the Bank of England only needed the incongruity (and the damage the invisibility of women does) pointing out to them. They'd take it from there.

It didn't quite work out like that. Starting that campaign was the beginning of one of the most intense three-month periods of my life.

The first response to the petition I started came in the shape of a "thank you for your comments" brush-off email. Next up, after a flurry of media attention, was Mervyn himself, who made a public statement kindly explaining that the Queen was on all the banknotes so he couldn't see what all the fuss was about.

Of course, I had actually noticed this. I also knew that becoming Queen is not exactly a realistic aspiration for women on the whole and, unlike the men on the front of the note, she is there by accident of birth, not to honour any of her achievements. Whatever you think of the Queen, it's not like she got there on merit. Which is kind of relevant when we're talking about inspiring role models, and, frankly, should have been obvious really.

And then came the lawyers.

I worked with the excellent Louise Whitfield at Deighton Pierce Glynn; the Bank hired Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, which is about as prestigious and expensive as it gets. It was starting to feel extremely David and Goliath.

This was the first time I had ever been involved in a legal wrangle and I was quickly disabused of my naive notion that lawyers must answer straight questions. Over the course of three letter exchanges the Bank's lawyers repeatedly mischaracterised our complaint, and ignored direct questions about their decision-making process. They also hedged their bets, telling us that the choice of historical figures was not an equality matter but that in any case they had complied with the Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED) to promote equality of opportunity in their decision-making process, but they wouldn't provide us with any evidence of having done so. It looked like we were going to court.

But then I got a call. Would I go in to meet Chris Salmon, then chief cashier, and Victoria Cleland, head of the notes division?

It was another first: I had never been in such a high-level meeting before and frankly, as I walked through the enormous entrance and into the double-height lobby I was intimidated.

But I had to stick to my guns. We would settle for nothing less than a public commitment to include female historical figures on banknotes and for a change in their decision-making process to ensure equitable outcomes in future. And we needed an answer before our deadline for filing our judicial review.

They said they would get back to me. Eventually, with days to spare, we got another call - would I go in again?

Fearing nothing good (if it was good news, why not tell me over the phone?) I headed back to Threadneedle Street and into a meeting with Victoria and Chris - where they more or less read my list of demands back at me. Only this time they were promises.

I kept a poker face but as soon as I was out of the meeting, I called my lawyer and shrieked down the phone that we'd won. I remember running from Bank to Angel. Daft Punk came on my headphones, the sun was shining and I couldn't stop grinning. I couldn't believe it. We'd taken them on and won.

Fast-forward four years and the £10 note with Jane Austen on it was released this week.

I don't think it will be real until I hold one in my hand - but I imagine it will feel amazing. I'll be donating my first Austen tenner to my local women's shelter. It feels like the right way to end this chapter of my life.

Belfast Telegraph

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