Invisible women: portrayal of women on Belgian banknotes  Share

Thinking of the Belgian franc, one would most probably remember a banknote bearing the portrait of Magritte or Mercator. These historic characters acted as ambassadors for Belgium. Their lives, their merit and their reputation have been studied very carefully. Always artists or scientists, apart from the King of course, they had all been dead for some time when it was decided to immortalise them on a banknote. Women were never in the running when it came to selecting people to feature on Belgian banknotes. The only exceptions to the rule were monarchs, but they were almost always accompanied by their spouse, the head of State.

In the 19th century, however, it was the complete opposite. The vast majority of the humans featuring on banknotes were women. They were mainly allegories or mythological figures who personified ideas or concepts. The allegory has an educational role to play in that it helps to spread the word among the general public in a clear and understandable way. On banknotes, it is above all basic economic sectors like agriculture, trade and industry that take on a human face. One of the oldest banknotes issued by the National Bank of Belgium, the 500-franc note dating from 1852, is a good example. The four female figures standing up are dressed in Greek attire and are quite static and impersonal. On the left-hand side, the allegories of Trade and Industry can be recognised thanks to Mercury’s caduceus and a cogwheel. The two feminine figures on the right-hand side are the embodiment of freedom and justice. Freedom has broken free from her chains and Justice is carrying scales and a sword. The portraits in the upper corners represent Ceres and Pax, symbols of agriculture and peace. Peace, stability and a sound legal system were of utmost importance for the prosperity of the fledgling Belgium.

500 F type 1852 vz 300dpi

Front of the 500-franc note, 1852 © Museum of the National Bank of Belgium

Another group of allegories that can be found on banknotes are the personification of the nation. As early as 1694, the Bank of England had given Britannia a place on its official seal. These women were always very large and powerful in order to emphasise the glory of the nation they represented. They also looked very stern and impersonal. These feminine figures were often accompanied by a wild animal like a lion, symbol of courage, grandeur and vigilance.

In many areas, the First World War was a breaking point in history. So, it was not just by chance that first real portraits came up on banknotes at this time. In 1914, the National Bank issued denominations of 20, 100 and 1000 francs bearing the effigy of Leopold I, as part of the so-called current-account series. In 1915, Queen Louise-Marie followed in her husband’s footsteps and was thus the first woman to be portrayed on Belgian banknotes, 5- and the 100-franc notes issued by Société Générale. It was effectively the Société Générale bank that put Belgian notes into circulation after the Germans had stripped the National Bank of its right of issue. Louise-Marie is clearly recognisable on the banknote, but she seems to have a melancholy look about her, almost as if she knew that Belgium was an occupied country.

Over the following decades, fictitious characters continued to be given pride of place on banknotes. Portrayals became much more realistic and dynamic. Neoclassical allegories were in fashion and printing technology was advancing. The women portrayed on banknotes worked in the country’s leading economic sectors, often in the fields or the factories but always doing women’s jobs. On the back of the 1000-franc note from 1919, for example, a woman is busy lace-making on a spindle, pointing up the importance of the textiles industry. In reality, the female figures depicted were still largely symbols of economic growth, national wealth or the cultural identity of the country. The characters and situations represented were also highly romanticised.

The 50-franc note put into circulation by the Treasury in 1948 shows a couple, symbolic for a Belgium of ‘unity in diversity’. They are working the land together, but their roles are quite separate. The farmer’s wife is carrying a fruit basket, referring also to women’s fertility, while the man is planting a tree.

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Obverse of the 50-franc note, Treasury note, 1956 © Museum of the National Bank of Belgium

During the second half of the 20th century, real characters from history started to earn their place on banknotes. The individual became more important and improvements in printing techniques made it possible to produce more detailed portraits.

The only woman who found her way onto a Belgian banknote is Margaret of Austria (1480-1530). She was depicted on the back of the 500-franc note dating from1962. On the front was one of the favourite painters from the Habsburg Court, Bernard Van Orley. Margaret was Governor of the Netherlands from 1507 and brought up her nephew, the future Emperor Charles V. But the penultimate and last series of Belgian franc notes, dedicated respectively to artists from the 19th and 20th centuries, did not publicly honour any women at all.

500 F Van Orley kz 300dpi

Back of a Van Orley-type 500-franc note, 1962 © Museum of the National Bank of Belgium

According to Virginia Hewitt, who carried out an international research project on the subject, most women depicted on banknotes, all over the world, are figureheads in the history of their own country. Besides the famous females, there are also some portraits of working women, but, like banknotes from the first half of the 20th century, these tend to concentrate on gender-stereotyped sectors like literature. Other women were acclaimed for their social work. Although Florence Nightingale had to fight every inch of the way, on the £10 note on which she is portrayed, emphasis was put on her empathy and kindness, traditionally regarded as feminine characteristics. Thus, the portraits of famous women from our history are often more of a modern-day interpretation of the great virtues that the female allegories symbolised in the past. Moreover, the world of banking is still male-dominated, even now in the 21st century. So the choice of female portraits featuring on banknotes does not always turn out to be straightforward. It is the same story as far as coins are concerned.

Obverse of a commemorative €2 coin, 2011

Obverse of a commemorative €2 coin, 2011 © Museum of the National Bank of Belgium

In 2011, Belgium tried to buck the trend somewhat by minting a commemorative coin to mark the centenary of International Women’s Day. The coin features the portraits of Isala Van Diest, the country’s first lady doctor, as well as Marie Popelin, the first female lawyer. Since they defended women’s rights, they both had to put up with a lot of hostility and prejudice throughout their lives. More than a century later, to mark their role as leading Belgian women, they were finally given the privilege of being portrayed on our coins.

Nina Van Meerbeeck
Museum guide

Bibliography

  • Costermans K., Margaret of Austria, a woman who managed to play a political role (Object of the Month May 2010, Museum of the National Bank of Belgium).
  • Le billet de banque belge, CD-Rom, Museum of the National Bank of Belgium, 2001.
  • Hewitt V., Beauty and the Banknote, Images of Women on Paper Money, London, 1994.
  • Hewitt V., “Soft images, hard currency: the portrayal of women on paper money”, in Hewitt V. (red.), The Banker’s Art, studies in in paper money, London, 1995, 156-165.