The new British passport design, celebrating important UK figures and landmarks, has attracted a lot of criticism for its failure to include more than two women among its pages. In the 500 years of history that the design aimed to cover, apparently only two women – architect Elisabeth Scott and mathematician Ada Lovelace – were found to be noteworthy enough to be included, against seven men. A tired sigh has resounded on social media from feminists everywhere. After the successful campaign to put Jane Austen on the £10 bank note, this feels like a step backwards. It should not be this hard to think of more than two prominent women in 500 years of British history.
Additionally, save for one page featuring cultural festivals and another celebrating the architecture of Anish Kapoor, the design only showcases the accomplishments of white figures. It all feels rather tokenistic. To understand the implications of this severe lack of representation in one of the most important documents most of us will own, it’s useful to imagine if the reverse had been true and the design was filled mostly with women, particularly women of colour. We would hear accusations of blatantly ignoring the most important figures in British cultural history. Yet two women against seven men is perfectly acceptable.
What women should have been included in this lineup? The usual suspects such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Virginia Woolf, and the Brontë sisters have been suggested many times, but what about more modern writers such as Malorie Blackman or Zadie Smith, or even J.K. Rowling? Visual artists such as Barbara Hepworth or Tacita Dean? Architects like Zaha Hadid? History is not at a loss for women who have made amazing contributions to British culture.
As it is, two women and seven men, all of them white, is somehow something that the director general of the Passport Office can call ‘a good representation’ without a second thought. Only a representation of a select portion of the population, it seems, and not one that many of us will be proud to hand over at customs.