New UK passport design acknowledges only two women and stirs up a sexism debate

“Airbrushing women out of history”: the government faces a storm of criticism over the new ‘Creative United Kingdom’ passport, launched yesterday and featuring only two women – architect Elisabeth Scott and mathematician Ada Lovelace

Designed to celebrate 500 years of British success in art, culture, innovation, architecture and performance, the new design commemorates the work of just two British females in its 34 pages. The portraits of Scott and Lovelace sit alongside seven British male examples with numerous acknowledgements of their work and achievements.

Unveiled yesterday by immigration minister James Brokenshire, the new design features advances in security printing using UV and infrared light and inks, making it “the most secure ever produced in the UK”, and will be used for the next five years.

It includes watermarks of Shakespeare on every page, portraits and works from painter John Constable, longitude clock inventor John Harrison, architect Giles Gilbert Scott, mathematician Charles Babbage, the Stephenson rocket, designed by George and Robert Stephenson, works of art by Anthony Gormley and Anish Kapoor, and many more examples of “pioneering work in the creative industries”.

Page design from the new UK passport
Page design from the new UK passport with a portrait of clockmaker John Harrison, Royal Observatory Greenwich, marine timekeepers H1 and H4, and a map of Foulby. Lead image: portraits of mathematicians Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, Babbage’s Analytical Engine, code written by Lovelace, modern computers, and a map of Bletchley
Page design from the new UK passport
Page design from the new UK passport with Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North, Another Place, Quantum Cloud, and a map of Gateshead

At the launch, Mark Thomson, director general of the Passport Office, was asked why only two women appeared, and defended the design: “It wasn’t something where we set out to only have two women,” he said. “In trying to celebrate UK creativity over the last 500 years we tried to get a range of locations, a range of things around the country, and to celebrate our triumphs and icons over the years. So there we are.”

He was then pressed as to why they passed on Austen or the Brontës as obvious contenders: “Whenever you do these things, there is always someone who wants their favourite rock band or their local icon or something else in the book. In fact, we have got 16 pages, and very finite space. We like to feel we have got a good representation. We have celebrated some real icons of the UK, like Shakespeare, like Constable, and of course, Elisabeth Scott herself.”

Page design from the new UK passport
Page design from the new UK passport with portrait of John Constable, his painting the Hay Wain, and a map of Dedham Vale
Page design from the new UK passport
Page design from the new UK passport with architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, Battersea Power Station, Liverpool Cathedral, K2 red telephone box and map of Liverpool, all designed by Scott

Campaigners, MPs and people around the UK and beyond, exasperated and tired of having to fight repeatedly against the underrepresentation of women, accused the government of sexism.

A barrage of criticism on social media, picked up by national press and television commentary, echoed the sentiment of a campaign in 2013, which successfully saw the replacement of Charles Darwin with Jane Austen on the £10 bank note, following the decision to replace Elizabeth Fry with Winston Churchill on the £5 note.

Page design from the new UK passport
Page design from the new UK passport with a portrait of architect Elisabeth Scott, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Bournemouth Pier Theatre, both designed by Scott, and a map of Bournemouth
Page design from the new UK passport
Page design from the new UK passport with Stephenson’s Rocket going across the Sankey Viaduct, Brunel’s ss Great Britain,  and a map of Rainhill

The ‘keep women on English banknotes campaign’, was led by women’s rights advocate Caroline Criado-Perez (@CCriadoPerez), who tweeted yesterday before a TV appearence: “So I’ll be on sky news later talking about why wanting 50% of the population represented is not like wanting your fave rockstar…”

Labour MP for Walthamstow Stella Creasy (@stellacreasy), who was also prominent in the bank note campaign, tweeted yesterday: “So tired of this shizzle – home office could only find 2 UK women 2 celebrate in 500 years of history #tellHERstory”

#tellHERstory suggestions on twitter flooded in with examples including Barbara Hepworth, Beatrice Webb, Virginia Woolf, Beatrix Potter, Jane Austen, Mary Wollstonecraft, Annie Besant, Jocelyn Bell, Rosalind Franklin, Mary Shelley, Emily or Charlotte Bronte, Florence Nightingale to name just a few.

Page design from the new UK passport
Page design from the new UK passport with Waterloo Underground station, London Underground network map designed by Harry Beck and London Underground symbol at Maida Vale
Page design from the new UK passport
Page design from the new UK passport with Sir Rowland Hill’s Penny Black stamp, Jacob Perkins’ D cylinder press, stamped postcard, Victorian post box, Birmingham Old General Post Offie, and a map of London

Islington South Labour MP Emily Thornberry (@EmilyThornberry) tweeted: “Here we go again – new UK #passport has 7 men featured and just 2 women. #weexist”

And Catherine Mayer (@catherine_mayer), co-founder of the Women’s Equality Party, tweeted: “Oh #FFS. New UK passport celebrating 500 years of creativity features JUST TWO WOMEN”.

Page design from the new UK passport
Page design from the new UK passport, with The London Eye, The Pierhead, The Falkirk Wheel, The Titanic Belfast, and The Houses of Parliament
Page design from the new UK passport
Page design from the new UK passport with Edinburgh Castle, a South Asian dancer, Caribean Carnival costume, Scottish pipers, Chinese lion mask, and a map of Edinburgh

In a statement on the Fawcett Society website, the UK’s leading charity for women’s equality and rights, CEO Sam Smethers said: “Instead of being celebrated and remembered great British women are being airbrushed out of history. They could have included the first feminist and writer Mary Wollstonecraft, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Virginia Woolf, Bridget Riley – the list is endless.  This is completely unacceptable and the dismissive response of the Passport Office is revealing in itself.  It appears that they have a problem with institutional sexism.”

Page design from the new UK passport
Page design from the new UK passport with Shakespeare’s Globe, a cast of a play, and a map of the City of London
Page design from the new UK passport
Page design from the new UK passport with Anish Kapoor’s Marsyas, Termenos, and Orbit

Some internet commenters / trolls are defending the design, with counter arguments ranging from suggesting that it is representative of a historical male-female balance, to vapid statements of dismissal: “apart from the hairy assed feminists, who cares”. But the majority of the commentators, critics and Twitter users appear frustrated that this still has to be such a struggle in 2015, and questioning why a public vote or nominations weren’t part of the process.

Given that the new passport is meant to be celebrating the UK’s creative pioneers, tell us which major female creative figures you would like to see included in future designs in the comments below

Page from the new UK passport showing invisible design under UV light
Page from the new UK passport showing invisible design under UV light

More from CR

Frank Budgen: A Tribute

Frank Budgen, who has died aged 61, was quite possibly the greatest commercials director the UK has ever produced

Myerscough and Morgan in Mexico

In the latest super colourful Superstudio project, Morag Myerscough and Luke Morgan have built a giant camera obscura in the heart of Mexico City

Graphic Designer

Fushi Wellbeing

Creative Designer

Monddi Design Agency