Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Thursday 5 November 2015

The British Passport

Women are up in arms.

Women spend a lot of time up in arms. A lot of women’s time is wasted, and that’s a pity, because it means that everyone loses out on the time and energy that those women could be spending on other much more important things than fighting for the rights that we really ought to have by now.

We are equal and we always were. What will it take for society to recognise that?

The latest battle, as daft as it seems, and let’s not pretend it isn’t mostly symbolic, is over the British passport.

The British, it turns out, are pretty regular travellers, about 76% percent, or 42.5 million of us hold passports. (Only about 46% of Americans have passports, just for the sake of comparison.) A little over half of those passports are carried by women, assuming that equal numbers of men and women have passports.

The latest design for the British passport has just been launched. It has lots of new security features, which, of course is a good thing. The new passport will be in production for the next five years and will be issued to first time holders of British passports and to those renewing their passports. All good.

The problem is with the design of the passport, which is intended to celebrate arts and culture over the past 500 years and is titled “Creative United Kingdom”. The portraits of nine outstanding citizens were chosen to adorn the pages of the passport, including a watermark on each page of a bust of Shakespeare. Other portraits include John Constable, Giles Gilbert Scott, Charles Babbage, John Harrison, Antony Gormley and Anish Kapoor.

I’m guessing you’ve spotted the controversy by now… I haven’t yet included the names of any women.

The Royal Mint regularly chooses portraits to appear on the notes of the UK's currency. I took a quick look at those notes that have been issued and revised in my lifetime. Fifteen portraits are on that list, of which only three are of women. You will all have seen the recent debacle over the non-inclusion of a woman in the latest round of portraits. Jane Austen was subsequently chosen for the re-issue of the ten pound note in 2017. This happened only after several feminists, including Caroline Criado-Perez received vicious threats on-line from men. I wrote about her experiences here... And all because feminists were looking for some kind of recognition and representation of women.

Constance Mankiewicz MP
Apparently, the Immigration Ministry learned nothing from this, including the fact that the Equality Act 2010 commits public institutions to end discrimination. The thirty-four pages of the new passport contain seven images of men. They also contain images of the Penny Black, the London Underground, Steam Transportation, the Globe Theatre, Festival Culture and Brilliant Buildings (although I’m not entirely sure what those last two things actually are; the government website simply lists them).

The first woman to appear in the passport is Elisabeth Scott, the architect who designed the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon. It was the first public building in the UK to be designed by a woman. Not for nothing, but we’re back with Shakespeare again, and we’re talking about a woman in a traditionally male role. I’m very content for women to be doing any job, and equally happy that all professions should be considered gender-neutral. On the other hand, this doesn’t celebrate women or womanhood in any way that is particularly significant, or that resonates strongly with me as an individual.

Elizabeth Cowell BBC
The second woman to appear in the passport is Ada Lovelace, the mathematician. She shares a page in the passport with Charles Babbage. It was her work on early algorithms that got the Analytical Engine up and running. Of course, the Engine has Charles Babbage’s name on it. It isn’t the Babbage-Lovelace Engine, although I might just call it that from now on. She rather played second fiddle to him then, and I can’t help thinking that she rather plays second fiddle to him in this new passport.

Where are the women who didn’t work in a man’s world? Who aren’t associated with men’s achievements? Who were independent pioneers? There have been plenty of them in the past five centuries.

Where is Constance Mankiewicz or Virginia Wolf or Barbara Hepworth? Where are the Bronte sisters or Elizabeth Cowell or what about JK Rowling or Mary Quant? What about Marie Stopes or Tracey Emin, or Sarah Guppy or Beatrice Shilling?

Sarah Guppy Wiki
Now look at that list again, and tell me how many of those women you’ve never heard of. And tell me how much you knew about Ada Lovelace and Elisabeth Scott before I gave you their potted histories.

I’m not surprised.

I’m not surprised that there are only two portraits of women in the new passport and I’m not surprised that the committee putting the passport together lacked the imagination to include women who didn’t have obvious ties to famous men.

Feminists talk about writing women out of history. 
Beatrice Shilling OBE

The problem isn’t that at all, as I see it.

To write women out of history, women would have had to be written into history in the first place. Had women been as valued as men, if their accomplishments and achievements had been as celebrated as mens throughout history then they would automatically be included equally with men in any and all endeavours to represent and celebrate historic achievements in the present.

It doesn’t happen now, because it has never happened. The question is, how can we make it happen?

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  1. It is ridiculous that, in 2015, the achievements of women are still routinely ignored and subject to such blatant inequality. You have listed some outstanding examples that could or should have been present in the new passport. Bizarrely, some men are pushing back; they feel that their rights as men are under siege. Only last week, Tory MP Philip Davies asked for a debate on International Men’s Day in November. He stated that men don't get the opportunity to have their voice heard in Parliament. Jess Phillips, Labour MP, was sitting on the backbench committee that allocates debate times. ‘As the only woman on this committee, it seems like everyday to me is International Men’s Day,’ she said. For me, this sums it up rather neatly. Obviously, as is now the norm, she was then bombarded on social media with rape threats. These men, whoever the fuck they are, appear to experience no problem at all having their 'voice heard' when it comes to threatening a woman with rape.
    As I said, you have listed many outstanding women and, in the case of Constance Markievicz, a hero of mine. I'd guess though, that the British Establishment would have more reason to exclude her from the passport for her politics than for her sex.

    1. I wonder if there's an outside chance that's why I dropped her in there. Smiles.