Why Do Some Feminists Want to Burn the Jane Austen Banknotes?

I talked to Jude Wanga about feminism and privilege.

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16 December 2013, 3:15pm

When it was announced that Jane Austen was to appear on the next edition of the ten-pound note, it was widely seen as a victory for feminist campaigners. After all, it would be rotten if, when Churchill replaces Elizabeth Fry on your fiver in 2016, every banknote were fronted by a dude.

So, it seemed a little odd when left-wing anti-capitalist feminists joked on Twitter on Wednesday that they were going to start burning the ten-pound notes. Yes, the very same notes that, earlier in the year, some other feminists campaigned to have a female face on. Referring to the campaign to ban Page 3 models in the Sun – which this particular group of feminists also thought was stupid – they said they would “Buy 20 copies of the Sun and ask only for Page 3”, set them on fire and “use the tenner for a wick”. One particularly zealous feminist proclaimed that she was going to “shove the new tenner up her cunt and livetweet her wank”.

Aside from the fact that the imagery doesn't quite work (how would you make a candle out of newspaper?), this all stems from the argument that much of the feminism in the media focuses on seemingly trivial issues, and the conversation is dictated by mainly white middle-class women. "Intersectional" feminists, who make it a point of good practice to take things like class and race into their overall analyses, are taking a stand by joking about burning and wanking with money.

Because this happened on Twitter, the feminists who had campaigned for the Jane Austen tenner in the first place started a backlash against the backlash under the hashtag #feministtenner, asking feminists to do something positive with the note instead of, erm, “Using it to wipe our arses.” Some other people have responded by saying that they are going to write feminist slogans on Jane Austen’s face and give the tenner to women’s charities.

To make sense of what's going on, I decided to talk to Jude Wanga, an interpreter, editor, activist and writer who identifies as an intersectional feminist. Wanga also made a BBC3 documentary called The World's Most Dangerous Place for Women about the conditions for females living in the DRC and the use of rape as a weapon of war. I reached out for her POV.

Image via

VICE: So Jude, why would you burn a tenner?
Jude Wanga: My problem with the [ten-pound note] campaign is that a lot of the things that privileged, "white feminism" is highlighting these days are trivial. Women are the hardest hit by the recession, the shelters which many are having to rely upon are being closed and it smacks of privilege to raise all this money – 16 grand – to get the face of Jane Austen on a ten-pound note when many women don’t even have banknotes to look at. I don’t need to look at a woman on a banknote to feel empowered – we need gender equality to feel empowered.

Are you a feminist?
Yes, but I come at it from an intersectional standpoint, that is, taking other oppressions – like race, class and disability – into account as well. Feminism isn’t just an ideology, it’s a lived experience and if someone identifies as a feminist then that’s that. They are a feminist, no questions asked. Feminism means different things to different people.

What do you think of putting Jane Austen on the banknote?
I just thought that it was a bland choice. If we are going to fight to have a woman on the banknote, why not pick someone more exciting and inspirational, or move Fry from the £5 note to the £10 note. Choosing Jane Austen wasn’t exactly setting the movement on fire.

What's the problem with the No More Page 3 campaign?
It smacks of privilege as well. They weren’t taking the needs or thoughts of the Page 3 girls, who are mainly working class and informed about their choice, into account. We shouldn’t penalise or patronise women for making this choice in a patriarchal capitalist society where we are told to make money by any means possible. If we are trying to change institutions, the way isn’t to silence these women. I also don’t see how you can call the Sun a family newspaper [as the No More Page 3 campaigners have done], regarding its content.

What did you think of the #feministtenner backlash?
To be honest, I avoided looking at the hashtag. I found it all a bit absurd; it was all very navel gazing. You shouldn’t have to have a ten-pound note with Jane Austen’s face on it in order to donate to feminist causes. If these self-satisfied people cared enough about them, they would donate anyway. I tried not to pay attention to it.

Apparently one person is planning on masturbating with a tenner, which has been labelled “sexual aggression” by the person who started the ten-pound note campaign. Thoughts?
Female masturbation isn’t sexual aggression. The person who made the wanking comment had just come up from days of abuse because of her sexuality. So to make that comment was a brave thing to do. It’s one thing to be offended because of what she said; it’s another to place her as an aggressor when you know nothing of her background or the context of her comment. There are certain prominent feminists who are using the movement to settle personal battles, and that’s not what my feminism is about.

Some people have said that it is, in fact, "privileged" to talk about burning money in this current political climate. Is it?
I think that the campaign comes from a position of privilege. No one can dictate what you should do with your money, and it’s not privileged to do so. People publicly rubbish privilege theory then come back at me saying that what I said was privileged, and that is hypocritical. It’s a shame that the media chooses to focus on campaigns such as No More Page 3 and the banknote campaign instead of all the other things that we do.

How can we move forward from this? Has the twitterstorm caused anything positive?
I think as feminists, criticism is healthy. Looking at what we do and how we do it is crucial. People don’t listen to us and need to listen better. It’s important to stop, take a step back, and look at a point of view that’s different from yours. Maybe this has done that.

Follow Helena on Twitter: @helenashead

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