In Paris this summer, you can’t miss Simone Veil. The city is filled with ‘Merci Simone’ posters, and recently, the ‘Europe’ metro stop has been renamed in her honour.
Meanwhile, at the entrance of the Panthéon, signs chronicling her life story have appeared. They tell of how she was deported to Auschwitz when she was 16, where she lost her parents and brother; how she survived and started an impressive career as a magistrate, minister, first female president of the European Parliament and an academic; and how in 1975, as minister of health, she succeeded – against the will of her own political camp – in decriminalising abortion in 1975.
Where are the women in Paris?
On 1 July, Veil’s accomplishments saw her Veil added to the list of those buried in the Panthéon, a monument in the Latin Quarter. She is an exception. The Panthéon was originally a church dedicated to Sainte-Geneviève – but now it’s mainly a mausoleum for famous French men.
As Céline Piques, spokesperson for the group Osez le Féminisme (Dare to be a Feminist), explains: “72 men are buried there, but only four famous women were admitted on the basis of their own merits.”
The other three are scientist Marie Curie, and two members of the French resistance, Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz and Germaine Tillion. The only other woman buried in the Panthéon is Sophie Berthelot – who shares a grave with her husband, the chemist and politician Marcellin Berthelot. “I am very happy that Simone Veil joins their ranks,” Piques adds. “There may be a plaque saying ‘grands hommes’ above the entrance of the Panthéon, but women also built France.”
Osez le Féminisme is committed to increasing the visibility of women in the Parisian streets. Only 2.6 per cent of street names in Paris are named after a woman, and these are often the wife or daughter of a well-known man. In all, 31 per cent of all streets are named after men.
A few years ago, Osez le Féminisme plastered 60 street signs on Paris’s Île de la Cité with the names of famous women, such as Pont Josephine Baker, Boulevard Emilie du Châtelet and Quai de Nina Simone. “Names of landmarks honor the contributions that people made to science, art and politics,” Piques says. “And there are hardly any landmarks named after women. This not only means a part of history is forgotten, it also influences the image we have of what women can achieve in life.
“That is why we want to rename existing streets that are not named after a person, in order to equalise the balance between men and women. If we have to wait for the construction of new streets, it will take years. “
In recent weeks, the organisation has been campaigning to name two new metro stations after women. Just four of the 303 metro stops on Paris’ sixteen lines were already named after female figures; and there is a Rosa Parks station on the RER rail network in northern Paris, named after the American civil rights activist.
But because the metro network is being expanded, two new stops will be added. Osez le Féminisme called its supporters to vote for women in an online election which presented six possible names, three men and three women. The campaign was successful: the stations will be named after the famous singer Barbara and Lucie Aubrac, a resistance fighter who died in 2007. “This means that a total of six metro stations will be named after women,” Piques says. “It’s a start.”
A first for Brussels
The city of Brussels also turned to online crowdsourcing when selecting new street names in recent weeks. Some 28 streets are being added to the city – and residents from all over Belgium could submit proposals that had a link with Belgian history. It was the first time that Brussels had given its citizens the opportunity to propose street names.
Vesna Jusup, who works for the European Greens in Brussels and is an expert on gender and urban planning, says only four out of 54 Brussels metro stations refer to a woman. “Those four consist of two queens, a princess and a saint. As far as street names are concerned, it’s not much better: about 3 per cent are named after a woman, 22 per cent after a man.”
Several organisations have called for voters to nominate women for the new street names. The city itself asked for ‘poetry’ and that’s what they got: Brussels will soon have streets named ‘Ceci n’est pas une rue’ and ‘Frietgang’ (“Fries passage”). But there will also be a Chantal Akermanstraat and Isala Van Dieststraat, named after the famous Brussels-born film director and the first Belgian female doctor and feminist respectively.
Last month, Brussels MP Fatouma Sidibé (DéFi) filed a draft resolution to name more streets in Brussels for women, too.
Beyoncé Boulevard in Amsterdam?
In recent weeks, the Dutch activist group De Bovengrondse followed suit in several cities in the Netherlands, including Amsterdam. Stickers with alternative street names were pasted below the original signs, to indicate what could have been. De Dam in Amsterdam was renamed Dame (“Lady”); Rokin became Beyoncé Boulevard. Only 12 per cent of Dutch streets are named after women, according to the activists – and so they published a list of 12 women who should be given their own street as soon as possible.
Research by De Correspondent shows that 88 per cent of the streets in Amsterdam which are named after a person refer to a man; and that names from the historic black presence in Amsterdam are notably by their absence. Meanwhile, research by political party D66 Rotterdam recently showed that, in Rotterdam, 92 per cent of the street names named after people refer to white men. This “shows a very one-sided picture of Rotterdam’s history,” says council member Nadia Arsieni. “This is no longer acceptable in a diverse Rotterdam.” She therefore submitted a proposal to change the guidelines for the naming of streets in Rotterdam.
A symbolic discussion?
Merci Simone. Image: Selma Franssen.
Not everyone agrees more people should be able to recognise themselves in street names, however. In the Dutch province of Flevoland, the local party Hart voor Urk filed a motion calling for more representation of white people through street signs, including controversial historical figures such as the admiral Michiel de Ruyter and Dutch East India Company officer Jan Pieterszoon Coen. The motion was unanimously adopted by the Urk city council. The actions of Osez le Féminisme in Paris and De Bovengrondse in Amsterdam weren’t free from criticism, either. Some critics suggested that street harassment is a much more pressing problem for women in public space.
Vesna Jusup agrees that the naming of landmarks does not directly yield more rights for women. But “it does create more awareness: if we know that people of colour and women historically contributed to our communities and still do, this will advance their image as people we need to protect rather than attack.
“It also corrects the way in which women’s performance have been systematically wiped out or assigned to men over the centuries. History was not dominated by men, written history was dominated by men. And that includes street signs.”
Céline Piques points out that her organisation is active on both fronts. “A survey among women in Paris indicated that all women experience street intimidation. We also try to tackle this, with actions like ‘Take back the metro’, or by walking around town with women and identifying places where they feel unsafe.”
The streets don’t belong to everyone
Street harassment and lack of recognition of women in the public space are connected: both make women’s experience of public space differ from men’s. Throughout history, women have been more tied to the home – through laws, social codes, the threat of sexual violence or impractical clothing. To some extent, they still are. Prevalence of street intimidation shows that walking alone as a women is all too often interpreted as a sexual invitation. Girls and women are still told that they should not walk the streets alone.
But as Rebecca Solnit points out in her book Wanderlust, in which she investigates the history of walking, solo walking has often led to encounters and experiences that have inspired the work of writers, artists and political thinkers. “It is impossible to know what would have become of many of the great male minds had they been unable to move at will through the world. Picture Aristotle confined to the house, John Muir in full skirts,” she writes.
Change may be slow, but these actions and campaigns matter, as does counteracting street harassment. Leaving the merits of women unrecognised in public space confirms the idea that women are less important than men and can be treated as such.
And those who feel less safe and free in public space have fewer opportunities to think, to daydream, to see, to meet and to accomplish. In short: fewer chances to leave an impression on history – which in turn can lead to being honored with a street name sign.
Selma Franssen is a Dutch freelance journalist, based in Brussels.