This article discusses the history behind Australia's banknotes, which include a woman on every one.
In May 1990, when the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) announced plans to replace Caroline Chisholm with the Queen on a new $5 note, the decision stoked growing republican sentiment and unleashed a fiery backlash about the representation of Australian women on banknotes.
Paul Keating called the decision a
national disgrace. Historian Manning Clark described it as
retrograde. The mauve-coloured fiver was the first of a series of new polymer banknotes to be issued between 1992 and 1996 and there were concerns about what it might mean for the designs of the remaining notes, which had yet to be revealed.
The initial series of decimal currency, featuring 11 men and the Queen, was released in 1966, followed by a $5 note in 1967 depicting Caroline Chisholm, a 19th-century humanitarian, and the only Australian woman on the notes. Yet almost three decades later, she was first to go from the new polymer series.
As well as formulating monetary policy and maintaining a strong financial system, the RBA, which was established in 1960, is responsible for issuing currency and that includes producing banknotes. Its decision to replace Chisholm on the $5 note came in the wake of decades of campaigning for women's equal representation across all aspects of Australian society. That sparked anger and disgust from the Women's Electoral Lobby (WEL), which called for 50 per cent of the faces on banknotes to be of women. Labor MP for the Queensland seat of Forde Mary Crawford said the decision showed
total disregard for women and women's place in our society. Hundreds of schools and citizens petitioned the Parliament, urging the bank to reconsider.
Opinion writers of the day proposed women more suitable than the Queen, ranging from May Gibbs and Phyllis Cilento to Germaine Greer and Sophie Lee. Subsequently Australia Post weighed in, printing Chisholm's portrait on a new set of travellers cheques.
Economically and financially, it was a pretty torrid time, explains Selwyn Cornish, an economic historian at the Australian National University (ANU) and the RBA's official historian. Selwyn says the introduction of the new banknotes coincided with Australia's 1991 recession and the collapse of a couple of state banks. He says that ultimately the RBA's board decides who's on our banknotes – not the Parliament or the people.
In 1992, the RBA stuck staunchly by its decision to put the Queen on the Australian $5 note instead of Chisholm, citing the established tradition of depicting the monarch on our currency. But it also acknowledged there had been a
mixed reception to its decision and early in the saga RBA spokesperson Peter McWilliam assured The Canberra Times
a woman will be represented, and possibly more.
Soon, the bank revealed, a different woman would, in fact, be depicted on every single banknote. It was a decision that three decades later remains world-leading.
As well as carrying an image of the Queen, the polymer notes, which are still in circulation, feature palm-sized portraits of writer Dame Mary Gilmore, businesswoman Mary Reibey, first female member of an Australian parliament Edith Cowan and soprano Dame Nellie Melba. Australia remains the only country with a different woman depicted on every banknote, well ahead of the next best nations Denmark and Sweden.
Given that women feature on only about 15 per cent of banknotes globally, it's a striking achievement, particularly when compared with USA's greenbacks, where all the faces are currently men, despite efforts to have African American activist Harriet Tubman put on the $20 bill.
To read the complete article, see:
Face off: Australia's complicated history with the faces on its banknotes
Wayne Homren, Editor
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