ICONOGRAPHY AND INEQUALITY
Historic women appear rarely on coins, with many pieces instead showing symbolic feminine figures such as Britannia, figures that are often created by men. So what can the coinage of the world tell us about gender inequality and the changing attitudes? Ema Sikic, coin expert at Baldwin’s in London shares her views
Ema Sikic is an archaeologist and an art historian, whose role at Baldwin’s involves taking care of the renowned London coin dealer’s collection of world coins. Her longheld fascination with coins means Ema loves her work and the continual learning the role provides. ‘My first encounter with numismatics was my grandfather’s collection of coins, which sparked an early interest,’ she says. ‘During college years, I learned more about coins in the Numismatic Department of the Archaeological Museum of Zagreb. After my studies, I started working as a specialist and immersed myself into the amazing world of numismatics in London.’
The iconography of women on coins has always fascinated Ema, as she discovers more about how women have been represented in different time periods and countries, from antiquity right up until the present day.
‘There is a polarity in how women are featured on coins,’ Ema reflects. ‘Looking at numismatic history, real-life, historic women appear rarely on coins. Women on coins were predominantly highly idealized and imaginary: mythical figures (goddesses), allegories of virtues (Concord, Fortune, Faith) and personifications of nations (Britannia, Liberty). These abstract depictions were used as political tools to express beliefs and values of nations and rulers.’
‘In the past, when historic women were depicted on coins, they were explicitly visually tied to traditional female societal roles and their dynastic destiny. Female rulers were often (and in some cases exclusively) depicted alongside their children and spouses to reinforce the idea of dynastic continuance. For example, on Roman coins, powerful empresses are portrayed on the obverse, yet on reverse the coins depicts ideals of feminine domesticity: marriage and child-rearing. Aspirations outside the domestic sphere such as political prowess and architectural endeavours were mainly reserved for coins of Roman emperors. Woman’s place on these coins is either as a wife, but more often an allegory promoting the success of the emperor (Victory, Peace) and a personification of a conquered land (Gallia, Judea).’
As with society in general, the attitudes to gender and equality have changed over the years, Ema says. ‘There have been positive changes as there is now a lot more awareness of women’s contributions throughout history. Currency is starting to reflect societal changes with lifting women to prominence, highlighting women in politics, science, sport, art, literature… The representation of women on currency is no longer confined to monarchs or mythical women. It is a telling sign of women’s accomplishments in different industries finally being recognised. The role of numismatics is crucial since coins have always been important for learning about our human history.’
There are many coins notable for their depiction of strong women, and Ema’s current favourite example is the Elizabeth I gold Sovereign, minted at the beginning of her reign around 1559-1560 AD. ‘This is a fantastic coin,’ the expert says, ‘which proved that England could compete with large European gold denominations. It was also a turning point from the period of debasement that England suffered during her father Henry VIII’s reign. Elizabeth’s reign was extraordinary for numismatics, she enticed unprecedented variety and innovation.
‘I like a few other interesting coins that teach us about strong women, such as denarii of Mark Antony and Cleopatra where they are depicted as equals and ‘Votes for Women’ pennies countermarked by suffragettes adamant in spreading their message.’
So what does the future hold? Will the study of women on coins will gain more attention? Ema certainly thinks so. ‘There is still a scarcity of scholarship that concerns women on coins specifically, however, the field is bound to get more attention and more publications. There are more women in the numismatic world every year, more women specialists, dealers and buyers and finally more historic women on coins and banknotes! It’s looking hopeful.’
Find out more about Baldwin’s at: www.baldwin.co.uk
“Real-life, historic women appear rarely on coins. Women on coins were predominantly highly idealized and imaginary”