An unknown woman could remind us of all the millions of women whose voices aren’t heard and whose talents are wasted (and have been wasted) because of sexism, poverty and lack of education. Not to mention the lack of access to suitable contraception and to safe, legal abortion, even here in the UK (big
But an unknown woman doesn’t fit with the Great Men and Women theme. So who should we choose? Elizabeth Garrett Anderson? She overcame massive odds to qualify as the first woman doctor, and helped improve education for girls and young women. Or Marie Stopes for all her pioneering work on sexual health, and for her legacy in terms of worldwide contraception and abortion services? Or Mary Seacole, Florence Nightingale’s contemporary, who was voted the greatest black Briton in 2004?
But we all know about the role of women in improving nursing and medicine now (don’t we?). It would be good to see someone on our banknotes from a less familiar field, like Ava Lovelace, the inventor of computer programming. My favourite is the daughter of a bankrupt banker - Octavia Hill. Without her work Hampstead Heath, and loads of other fantastic open spaces, would be covered in houses. She helped establish the National Trust – one of the largest membership organisations in the UK - and improved Victorian slums by becoming a landlord herself, and giving a return of five per cent to investors. Her model of social housing spread to Europe and North America, and remains here in the UK.
Octavia Hill had some surprising views. She opposed social support and even pensions, believing that they encouraged dependency. She also didn’t believe that women should have the vote, so is not an obvious feminist icon. But she achieved so much, and left an enduring legacy, and that’s what it’s all about in the end. So there we go. Vote Octavia when the time comes, once we have persuaded the Bank of England that the Queen shouldn't be the only woman on our banknotes. And make sure we win by signing the petition. You know we’re worth it.