The next time you’re walking down an unfamiliar block, take a moment to look at the street sign — chances are you won’t see a woman’s name.
It’s not just streets. Roads, buildings, parks, bridges, transit stops and cities themselves often bear the names of notable individuals from history. Overwhelmingly, those individuals are men, many of whom are honored over and over — nearly 5,000 streets around the U.S. are named after George Washington.
Mapbox, a site that provides data mapping tools to developers, illustrated the imbalance in a blog post this month. Engineer Aruna Sankaranarayanan and a small team analyzed the genders of people with streets named after them in seven cities across the world. On average, close to three-quarters of streets that bore a person’s name were named after men, Sankaranarayanan and her team found.
From Washington, D.C., to New Mexico to Paris, people are aware of this imbalance and are working to tip the scales. These activists say the failure to honor famous women in public places undermines their achievements and hurts girls who are growing up today.
It’s harder to notice sexism when it comes in the form of an absence of women, rather than outright discrimination, according to psychologist Lynette Long, who founded Equal Visibility Everywhere to advocate for increased representation of women. When girls constantly see evidence of men’s importance and power in the imagery of everyday life — whether it’s male street names or men’s faces on coins — it affects their self-image, Long says.
“These things are not insignificant,” she said. “Cumulatively, they send a really strong message when you add up all the public works.”
Long spent several years attempting to get ceremonial street names honoring former female residents like Sojourner Truth and Gloria Steinem installed around Washington, D.C. After extensive research and meetings with city council members, she got nowhere and put the project on the back burner.
She turned her attention instead to the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall, where each state is represented by statues of two former residents. Only nine are women.
Now, when states are trying to replace one of their statues, Long’s group jumps in and rallies support for notable women, speaking to state legislatures and organizing with local groups. They hit stumbling blocks with Harriet Tubman in Maryland and Maya Angelou in North Carolina, but there are encouraging signs in Long’s home state of Florida, where a subcommittee in the state House of Representatives recently voted unanimously to replace a Confederate general’s likeness. Though there are several possible replacements in the running, Long is pushing hard for environmentalist Marjory Stoneman Douglas.
“She’s such a role model to me. She went and spoke until she was 108. Even when she was blind, she went out speaking,” Long said. “She just kept fighting for the Everglades. I’m going to try to do the same thing.”
In Paris, a feminist group took a more direct approach after realizing that less than 3 percent of all the city’s streets were named for women. In August, members of Osez le Féminisme! covered dozens of street signs with makeshift new ones honoring pioneering women who often get overlooked, like lawyer Jeanne Chauvin and Madeleine Brès, the first French woman to earn a medical degree. The activists are pushing the city to change enough existing neutral street names to make the number of streets honoring women equal to the number named after men.
“Street names attest to our history: they belong to a political choice, revealing the values that the city wishes to embody,” the group said in a statement translated in The Independent. “Our history is full of scientists, writers, activists, women politicians, artists, revolutionaries, that deserve the recognition of this country.”
In New Mexico, Beverly Duran found out at a young age how much of an afterthought women have been in public projects and why the status quo is worth challenging.
As a kid, Duran would go on long drives through New Mexico with her dad. They’d stop every time they passed one of the historical markers put up by the New Mexico Historic Preservation Division, to read with pride about their state’s history and heroes. Each time, Duran wondered when they’d get to one about a woman. It wasn’t until decades later that she discovered that out of hundreds of markers, eight were dedicated to Billy the Kid, yet zero were dedicated to women.
That realization was part of the reason Duran and two friends, Pat French and Alexis Girard, formed the New Mexico Historic Women Marker Initiative in 2006. They lobbied the state legislature for funding, and have put up 75 markers honoring women.
One of the biggest challenges was that it was difficult to find notable women and their achievements in the standard history texts.
“Certainly these men didn’t come in by themselves and settle by themselves, but in the literature, there was no mention of women,” Duran said. “Really, we were not just asking for parity in the historical record. We realized very quickly what we were doing is also [documenting] history for the coming generation.”
Kate Abbey-Lambertz covers sustainable cities, as well as land use, housing and inequality. Tips? Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.