This August, activist group Osez le Féminisme (Dare to be Feminist) installed guerrilla signs in Paris to rename streets and parks after women like singer Nina Simone, sailor Florence Arthaud, and author Simone de Beauvoir because only 2.6 percent of the French capital’s streets are named for women. That action inspired Aruna Sankaranarayanan and her colleagues at Mapbox to create an analysis of “Mapping Female versus Male Street Names” in seven major cities.
Running a script and filtering out highways and other general names, and analyzing gender with NamSor, the resulting interactive maps chart streets named for men in blue and those named for women in pink. Sankaranarayanan stated their conclusions:
The results are fascinating, and maybe not surprising: streets named after men are more numerous and more centrally located than streets named after women in the metro areas we analyzed. Between Bengaluru, Chennai, London, Mumbai, New Delhi, Paris, and San Francisco, the percentage of streets named after women is an average of 27.5. Among the cities in India, Bengaluru tops the list with 39% of streets named after women.
She added that they’re still working on the code, and are open to city requests on Twitter. As Linda Poon reported at CityLab, the “program isn’t perfect,” noting that Starr King Way and Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco were both named for men and identified as tributes to women on the map. The map is indeed way far from perfect, and even as a non-local, just glancing at the maps revealed a plethora of errors, like London’s Haymarket and Suffolk being named for women, and Saint-Honoré, Rue Montmartre, and Rue de la Verenne in Paris likewise incorrectly labeled. The program also seems to not take into account state names as non-gendered in San Francisco.
To get a true grasp of the gender disparity, you’d have to go through street-by-street. For example in New York, there are thoroughfares like Hester Street named for Hester Bayard, which may be obvious, but also Cabrini Boulevard for Mother Cabrini. Nevertheless, it’s valuable as an advocacy tool, as where the map did work, for instance, you can see the Cours-la-Reine in Paris, a tribute to Queen Marie de Medicis, encircled on all sides by streets named for Winston Churchill, Jean Goujon, Montaigne, and François 1st.
Such imbalance might be easy to write off as insignificant, who cares what a street is named? Yet street names are reflections of a city’s history, and what it values of that past. In 2012, the Feminine Toponymy project (toponymy being the study of place names) examined streets in Italian cities, discovering that when they were named after women they were mostly saints, nuns, and the Virgin Mary, with only 2 percent honoring non-religious historic figures. This same issue pervades public statuary, such as in New York City where only five sculptures represent historic women. In response, the Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony Statue Fund is working to raise funds for statues of the two suffragists to be installed in Central Park. Reaffirming this issue, at the recent Art in Odd Places festival along 14th Street, LuLu LoLo dressed as Joan of Arc to ask “where are the women?” in the city monuments. It’s a question worth asking for any city, as those names are a part of the daily experience in its streets, which should reflect its inhabitants in equal measure.