A hard-won fight to get the writer Jane Austen's face on a bank note in England was greeted with rape threats targeting the effort’s main champion, Caroline Criado-Perez, cofounder of the Women's Room.
Ms. Criado-Perez said the day after the decision was announced was the day she received her first threat, on Twitter. “And this descended into two and a half weeks of continual rape and death threats. They were incredibly graphic, incredibly violent and very specific about which parts of my body were going to have what happened to them—very gruesome things that were being suggested,” she told the Global Observatory.
Because the attacks were happening on Twitter, the perpetrators acted with abandon. “A lot of the people who were attacking me clearly felt that they could act with impunity—that no one was going to do anything about it. One of the men said, ‘Call the cops. We'll rape them too.’ They felt that there was going to be no come back for their actions.”
Eventually a Labour politician Stella Creasy got involved and put Ms. Criado-Perez in touch with a stalking advocate who works with the police, because “some of the men had become very obsessed with me and were now tracking all my movements online, looking into my family and work history.”
As a result of all this, Twitter introduced a new one-click button to report abuse on every post, though it took quite a bit of effort. “They certainly were eventually talking to me about these issues, and I am still in contact with Twitter,” she said.
“I think, to a certain extent, the message is getting through, but perhaps not quite as quickly as I would like. And I think also there are a lot of cultural barriers up. I suppose what I'm saying is that I think that social media companies tend to be run by people who don't tend to experience this kind of aggression and oppression.”
She said social media companies need to take upon themselves to ensure that their platforms ensure free speech for everyone, and not just the people who shout the loudest. “They are creating an amazing tool, and it's a tool that can make them a lot of money. But they’re giving themselves a lot of power here. And I hate to use an old cliché, but with power does come responsibility.”
The interview was conducted by Warren Hoge, Senior Adviser for External Relations at the International Peace Institute.
Listen to interview (or download mp3):
Warren Hoge: Our guest in the Global Observatory today is Caroline Criado-Perez, a freelance journalist, broadcaster, and feminist campaigner who is cofounder of the Women's Room, an organization that campaigns for more women experts in the media. She also started and ran the high-profile Keep Women on Banknotes campaign in the United Kingdom, which attracted global attention when she ended up in the center of a Twitter abuse storm receiving crude rape and death threats after the Bank of England decided to put the image of the nineteenth-century romantic novelist of manners, Jane Austen, on British bank notes.
Caroline, though your situation got broad coverage, many people may not know the story, and it is an amazing story. So please go back to the beginning and tell us why you launched the women on bank notes campaign in the first place.
Caroline Criado-Perez: Well, basically what happened was that the Bank of England announced the new face of the new five-pound note, and that was going to be Winston Churchill; and I realized that as a result Winston Churchill being on the new five pound note, that meant that the one woman we had on notes, Elizabeth Fry, was going to be taken off. And that meant that there was going to be an all male and in fact all white line-up on our bank notes. And I felt that this sent a really damaging message about the contribution of anyone who wasn't a white man to British society and British history. And the bank of England themselves acknowledged the role that bank notes play in shaping our cultural narrative, and I was just really concerned that here was yet another decision about who we are going to celebrate in the public sphere that was going to be excluding women from it.
So I started the campaign, challenging the bank of England’s decision, suggesting that they needed to review their selection procedures because they were clearly inadequate. I mean, if you end up with all men on bank notes, it suggests that your selection procedures aren't really thinking about the wide gamut of people’s contributions to society. And it was fantastic. In a way, it was quite sad to see how hard I had to fight for such a relatively minor thing as asking for a woman's face to be on bank notes. Three months of hard campaigning raising over thirteen-thousand pounds for a legal challenge, and a lot of stonewalling from the bank, but eventually they did agree that they needed to review their selection procedures.
WH: Do you remember the reaction of Mervyn King, the then governor of the bank?
CCP: Oh yes, I do remember the reaction of Mervyn King. Mervyn King's reaction was initially very dismissive and quite patronizing. He said that the Queen was on all the bank notes. And there were a number of issues with that. For a start, the suggestion that I would start a campaign without ever having looked at a banknote and noted that the Queen was on all of them, and also indicating a total failure to engage with the type of debate that I was trying to have, which is how we value women in our society. The Queen is a woman, but she's not there by virtue of being a woman. She's there by virtue of being the monarch. She'd be there if she were a woman or not, she would also be there if she were an effective monarch or not. She’s there because of her role, not because of anything she's achieved.
And all the people who were on the other side of the bank notes were people who we agreed as a society had achieved great things and deserved to be honored. And a failure to include women in that list was very troubling to me and I felt indicative of a culture in which women aren't celebrated and women aren't recognized, and in my opinion, also leads to a culture in which women are not expected to be in the public sphere because we don't see women very much in the public sphere. And when we don't see women in the public sphere, it means women who do appear in the public sphere attract a lot of abuse, which is of course what ended up happening to me.
WH: Now, the Bank of England gets a new governor, the first non-Briton. I should point out a North American, a Canadian, and he decides to put the image of Jane Austen on the bank notes. At that point, you probably thought you'd had some success, but then what happened?