It's time the UK started naming streets after feminists

Well, it's a start. An area of Leeds with at least some streets named after women. Image: Google Maps.

The spirit of Cranford lives on: Elizabeth Gaskell’s matriarchal village has found a real-life counterpart in the Dutch town of Heemskerk.

Heemskerk may not have a beribboned, anxiety-ridden, Judi Dench at it’s helm – but in the north of the town are a network of streets paying tribute to famous Dutch feminists. As a result, Heemskerk has a higher percentage of streets named after women than anywhere else in Europe, maybe even the world.

I’ve spent rather a lot of time on Google Maps, staring at Heemskerk. It’s made me realize how much better Oxford Street would sound if we renamed it Jenni Murray Street. How much of an improvement it would be if one in every three High Streets was renamed Annie Kenney Street. Or Sophia Duleep Singh Road.

And I’m not alone in wanting to give my country a feminist makeover. Last summer, a group of French feminists calculated that only 2.6 per cent of Parisian streets are named after women. Tourists visiting Notre Dame cathedral are disorientated anyway (and nothing clarifies things like a good dose of gender theory), so activists from Osez le Feminisme! plastered existing streets signs around the cathedral with alternative names.

The Quai de la Tournelle became the Quai de Nina Simone. Other streets were given to France’s first female doctor, Madeleine Brès, American scientist Barbara McClintock, sailor Florence Arthaud and pioneering lawyer Jeanne Chauvin.

These new street signs were temporary, but the push for gender equality in cartography is here to stay. In 2012 an Italian geography teacher called Maria Pia Ercolini began writing a cultural history of Rome. "During the research I realised that you never see traces of women.” Ercolini told the BBC World Service. “History just cancelled the women – they're not here."

Partially inspired by Ercolini’s work, 2015 saw researchers at Mapbox released a series of infographics showing that, throughout the world’s capital cities, only 27.5 per cent of the streets named after people were named after women.

It can be tempting, when confronted with statistics like this, to claim that if there are a disproportionate number of streets named after men, it’s because men just did more, back in historic times. Before the mid-20th century, women were not given the opportunity to excel or tp make a lasting impact on society. Other than giving birth to the entire human race and providing most of the world’s unwaged labour, that is.

So it makes sense that women have so little public visibility; that they’re missing from our street signs and our bank notes and our stamps and our art galleries and our newspapers and every bloody other thing


That’s not to say that feminists have been completely left out: there are, already, multiple Fawcett Streets in the UK (although whether they were actually named after Millicent Fawcett is up for debate). Emmeline Pankhurst has her fair share of real estate, there’s a Wollstonecraft Road, a Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School, a Virginia Woolf Bar & Bistro in Russell Square, and Mary Ann Evans got a road in Coventry for her male pseudonym: George Elliot. But that’s pretty much it. On the whole, famous feminists do not get streets named after them.

If we accept that street signs are named after a nation’s most accomplished citizens then surely, surely, the balance should be tipping by now. There is, after-all, a street in Dundee named after the Beano’s Bash Street Kids. There’s a Crotch Crescent in Oxfordshire. There’s a Minge Lane in Worcestershire.

London alone has a Cumming Street, a Frying Pan Alley, a Bonar Place, a Rotten Row and a Bleeding Heart Yard – although that last one is named after the grisly murder of a woman so I guess that’s something. A bit like the way the general public missed out on that museum of Women’s Suffrage but did get a shrine to a man who killed lots of women instead.

I’m not advocating we march on Frying Pan Alley, armed with pritt stick, drawing pins, and a sign for Diane Abbott Avenue. Let’s save the renaming ceremony for the streets which, through either chance or a stunning lack of imagination on the part of local councils, have ended up with the same name. Among a surfeit of Church Roads, High Streets, Kingsways, New Streets and Station Roads a few must have the potential to become Caroline Lucas Lane, Sylvia Pankhurst Road, or Olive Morris Street.

Putting someone’s name on a map is not just a way to acknowledge their achievements: it sends a wider message about what kind of achievements are worth acknowledgement. Now I’m reluctant to cast aspersions on local councils' commitment to gender equality on the ongoing lionisation of Rebecca West. But surely these feminist-inspired streets should already exist?

After all, renaming streets after successful feminists is an easy, yet powerful, way to show that our society honours women. We live in a society that, theoretically, values women as equal to men, but seems reluctant to give that theory physical substance. So let’s do it for them: grab your petitions, your glue guns, your step ladders and let's get going.

Don’t worry, there’s already a Beulah Street in Leeds. You can find another way to thank me.

 
 
 
 

What’s in the government’s new rail strategy?

A train in the snow at Gidea Park station, east London, 2003. Image: Getty.

The UK government has published its new Strategic Vision for Rail, setting out policy on what the rail network should look like and how it is to be managed. 

The most eye-catching part of the announcement concerns plans to add new lines to the network. Citing the Campaign for Better Transport’s Expanding the Railways report, the vision highlights the role that new and reopened rail lines could play in expanding labour markets, supporting housing growth, tackling road congestion and other many other benefits.

Everyone loves a good reopening project and this ‘Beeching in reverse’ was eagerly seized on by the media. Strong, long-standing reopening campaigns like Ashington, Blyth and Tyne, Wisbech and Okehampton were name checked and will hopefully be among the first to benefit from the change in policy. 

We’ve long called for this change and are happy to welcome it. The trouble is, on its own this doesn’t get us very much further forward. The main things that stop even good schemes reaching fruition are still currently in place. Over-reliance on hard-pushed local authorities to shoulder risk in initial project development; lack of central government funding; and the labyrinthine, inflexible and extortionately expensive planning process all still need reform. That may be coming and we will be campaigning for another announcement – the Rail Upgrade Plan – to tackle those problems head-on. 

Reopenings were the most passenger-friendly part of the Vision announcement. But while sepia images of long closed rail lines were filling the news, the more significant element of the Strategic Vision actually concerns franchising reform – and here passenger input continues to be notable mainly by its absence. 

Whatever you think of franchising, it is clear the existing model faces major risks which will be worsened if there is a fall in passenger numbers or a slowdown in the wider economy. Our thought leadership programme recently set out new thinking involving different franchise models operating in different areas of the country.

The East-West Link: one of the proposed reopenings. Image: National Rail.

Positively, it seems we are heading in this direction. In operational terms, Chris Grayling’s long-held ambition for integrated management of tracks and trains became clearer with plans for much closer working between Network Rail and train operators. To a degree, the proof of the pudding will in the eating. Will the new arrangements mean fewer delays and better targeted investment? These things most certainly benefit passengers, but they need to be achieved by giving people a direct input into decisions that their fares increasingly pay for. 

The government also announced a consultation on splitting the Great Western franchise into two smaller and more manageable units, but the biggest test of the new set-up is likely to be with the East Coast franchise. Alongside the announcement of the Strategic Vision came confirmation that the current East Coast franchise is being cut short.

Rumours have been circulating for some time that East Coast was in trouble again after 2009’s contract default. The current franchise will now end in 2020 and be replaced with public-private affair involving Network Rail.


This new management model is an ideal opportunity to give passengers and communities more involvement in the railway. We will be pushing for these groups to be given a direct say in service and investment decisions, and not just through a one-off paper consultation.

Elsewhere in the Strategic Vision, there are warm words and repeated commitments to things that do matter to passenger. Ticketing reform, compensation, a new rail ombudsman, investment in improved disabled access and much else. This is all welcome and important, but is overshadowed by the problems facing franchising.

Stability and efficiency are vital – but so too is a model which offers deeper involvement and influence for passengers. With the building blocks of change now in place, the challenge for both the government and rail industry is to deliver such a vision. 

Andrew Allen is research & consultancy coordinator of the Campaign for Better Transport. This article was originally published on the campaign’s blog.

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