Speak Up

“Why don’t we have more streets named after women in London?”

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Susan Devaney
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A feminist group in the Netherlands has renamed streets after women. Now, London should follow suit.

If you stand on any busy street in London you’ll be able to point out a street named after a man. Maybe you can see Shaftesbury Avenue – named after one of the Earls of Shaftesbury. Or maybe you’re standing on one of the city’s most famous streets? Downing Street – named after Sir George Downing.

If you keep walking, chances are you will also come across a street named after a woman – but only if you’re very lucky. According to a survey carried out by MapBox in 2015, about 27.5% of street names in big cities – such as Paris, Mumbai, New Delhi and San Francisco – are named after women. And in London, it’s no different.

In the Netherlands, a recent survey by news website, De Correspondent, found that 88% of roads in big cities across the world are named after men. In Amsterdam, only 12% of streets were named after women – all of which were either wives of famous men or goddesses. Which is why over the past few days, female activists in the country have taken matters into their own hands by renaming streets after inspirational women. Beyoncé Boulevard? Check. Ada Lovelace Street? Check.

The feminist group, De Bovengrondse (known as ‘above ground’ in English), has now launched a campaign to spread awareness and encourage people to name new housing estates after women.

On a website dedicated to the campaign, the group says: “Street names are an overview of who our society decides to honour, and that is why we think it is time to change these relationships. What would it be like if more people literally felt at home with the name of a strong woman?”

The incredible initiative has now moved on to Utrecht, Rotterdam, Groningen and elsewhere, with the hope of renaming many streets.

“It is always said that it is logical that there are so many male street names because history is written by men but there were also important women,” Santi van den Toorn, one of the campaign’s founders, told the Het Parool newspaper.

“The street names are of course only part of a bigger problem, but everyone lives in a street, so everyone understands this.”

Almost every city is full of men’s names, names of men who made history, who fought bloody battles, who held fortunes. Don’t get me wrong, women are not completely non-existent in our cities. We have Savile Row – named after Dorothy Savile, the third Earl of Burlington’s wife. And then there’s Charlotte Street – named after Queen Charlotte, wife of George III. But these women are wives not wielders of power.

But by comparison, there are approximately 900 streets in America named after Martin Luther King alone. Are there 900 streets named after a woman in this world? No. In short: names perpetuate the gendering of cities.

In recent years, New York City has actively named streets after women: Szold Place, after the editor and activist Henrietta Szold; Bethune Street, after the founder of the orphan asylum; Cabrini Boulevard, after the canonized nun and Margaret Sanger Square, after the patron saint of birth control.

No woman is a bridge, landmark or major building in London. 

In short: names perpetuate the gendering of cities

Our capital city’s blue plaque scheme features just 13% of women. Why can’t we see the names of women who’ve shaped our cities, too? The women who’ve come from other countries to share their culture, knowledge and customs like campaigner Bhikaji Cama? Or women who’ve fought for our freedoms like Emmeline Pankhurst? Or Helena Normanton, England’s first female barrister? And architect Jane Drew, who designed some of Britain’s most notable buildings.

Not seeing women celebrated in everyday places such as street names, Tube stops or parks has a detrimental effect on young women. All we can see our men’s triumphs. Imagine if London’s Elizabeth Line (due to open to the public in December 2018) went against tradition by featuring stops named after women? Now, that would be empowering for the next generation of women to see on their way to school every morning. Women who’ve worked, lived, painted, danced, and made much-needed changes in a city bursting with eight million people.

Going forth, ask yourself: who lived on my street? Maybe she was an incredible women who’s gotten lost in history. Let’s speak up, share their achievements and see their names as street signs. It’s our time.

For one day only on Monday 13 August, Laura Whitmore has taken over stylist.co.uk and transformed it into her very own Speak Up platform – a digital initiative which aims to shine a light on the day’s most important headlines, challenge the status quo, spark debate, encourage conversation and, above all else, champion women’s voices.

For similarly inspiring content, check out Laura Whitmore’s show on BBC Radio 5 Live.

Images: Unsplash / Twitter / Getty 

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Susan Devaney

Susan Devaney is a digital journalist for Stylist.co.uk, writing about fashion, beauty, travel, feminism, and everything else in-between.

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