In Paris, Amsterdam and Brussels, feminists are campaigning to name more streets after women

A poster showing Simone Veil in Paris. Image: Selma Franssen.

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.

 
 
 
 

A Century after radical leftists were elected to its city hall, Vienna’s social democratic base is slipping away

Karl Marx Hof. Image: Kagan Kaya.

Karl Marx-Hof, a kilometre-long municipal apartment block in Vienna’s wealthy 19th district, was first named after the father of the communist movement by Austria’s Social Democratic Workers’ Party (SDAP) in 1927. Its imposing structure borrows from an eclectic mix of modernist, Bauhaus, art deco, neoclassical and baroque architectural styles. In the mould of early soviet experiments, the building, nicknamed The Palace of the Proletariat, housed shared childcare services, gardens and washrooms.

The building is Vienna’s most prominent physical reminder of a period known as Red Vienna, when left-wing radicals found themselves at the helm of the Hapsburg’s former imperial capital during the aftermath of the First World War. 

After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy in 1918, the SDAP won the fledgeling republic’s first elections held under universal suffrage and commenced an ambitious programme of social and economic reform. Leading intellectual lights of the party sought to unite the two great strands of the 20th-century labour movement, reconciling parliamentary socialism and revolutionary communism under their new current of non-Bolshevik “Austro-Marxism”. Karl Marx-Hof epitomised their radical ambitions. “When we are no longer here”, Mayor Karl Seitz told an assembled crowd of workers at the building’s opening in 1930, “these bricks will speak for us.”

When I visited Karl Marx-Hof on a sunny day in June, Monica and George, two of its residents, were walking their two Chihuahuas around the estate’s leafy, quiet courtyards. “We moved here last year,” Monica tells me. “It’s really nice because you’ve got a lot of green space in the middle of the city.”

The young couple are the beneficiaries of a generous system of public housing provision. Vienna has a relative abundance of high-quality municipal flats compared with most large capitals. “We weren’t waiting long for the flat – moving in here was really fast”, Monica says. Currently, 60 per cent of Vienna’s residents live in either municipally owned, subsidised housing, or in social homes run by not-for-profit cooperatives. The remaining portion of private homes is subject to strict rent controls and regulations.

The social democrats and their less radical successors have remained the dominant party in Vienna since the city’s first election, save for an 11-year hiatus of fascist dictatorship from 1934, followed by Anschluss and Nazi occupation from 1938. The city remains a red statelet in an otherwise conservative country. Indeed, Austria is now more associated with the far right than the radical left. But even Vienna is no longer immune to the trend of waning support for centre-left parties that has gripped European countries since 2008, and cracks are beginning to appear in its social democratic project.

Two exhibitions in the city – one in the former communal wash house of Karl Marx-Hof, the other in the grand Wien Museum MUSA – note the achievements of Red Vienna’s experiment in local socialism: the introduction of pensions and unemployment support; the establishment of a nascent public healthcare system; the opening of kindergartens, schools run on Montessori principles, public baths, open-air swimming pools, libraries, parks, leisure facilities, arts centres; and, of course, a programme of mass council house building, all paid for by a system of progressive income taxation coupled with duties on luxury goods, including servants, champagne, private cars and riding horses.

Unlike the Bolsheviks, (and partly because, as a provincial government, it lacked the powers to do so), the SDAP did not expropriate or nationalise factories or private industry without compensation, but instead paid former owners whenever buildings or land passed from private to public hands. The party built what it perceived to be the chrysalis of a new egalitarian society, while leaving the market and private ownership of the means of production largely intact. In many ways, its policies palliated the worst effects of early 20th century industrial capitalism like slum housing, mass unemployment and extreme poverty. Red Vienna laid the ground for the modern European welfare state, inspiring other social democratic governments across the continent to implement similar policies after the Second World War. 


“Back then the social democrats were good,” Monica tells me, attempting to calm her excitable dogs by pulling on their leads. Does she intend to vote for the social democrats in the upcoming national elections in September? “We vote for the blue ones,” she answers. Monica and George will cast their vote for the Freheitliche Partei Osterreichs (FPO), the Freedom Party, an organisation founded after the Second World War by a former Nazi minister of agriculture and high-ranking SS officer. “It’s because of all the refugees and all the violence that’s going on here,” she claims. “Shootings are more frequent in Vienna.”

Austria has one of the lowest murder rates in the world, almost half that of England and Wales, and Vienna itself is known for its relative safety compared to other European capitals. But hundreds of thousands of refugees have travelled through Austria over the last four years. Many have made the city their home, but most have transited towards Germany, at Angela Merkel’s invitation. The mass movement of people from across the Mediterranean to central and northern Europe has ruptured the country’s social-democratic pact. In 2016, Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party narrowly missed out on victory in the presidential election, receiving 46 per cent of the vote.

“Lots of people say they’re just racists,” Monica continues, visibly uncomfortable with the idea that people would attribute malice or prejudice to voters like herself. But she hastens to add that her views, and those of her partner George, aren’t necessarily typical of Vienna’s affluent 19th district. “There are very rich people here, so they vote for the party who protects their interests… You’ll see a lot of big houses, so I think the OVP, the People’s Party, would do well.”

The OVP is the more traditional centre-right party of Austrian politics, and wins the most seats in the 19th district. Yet the city’s voting patterns are diverse. This is partly a result of the policies of successive social democratic administrations placing the integration of social classes and income levels at the heart of their municipal agenda. Subsidised housing can be found alongside wealthy private apartments in the city centre designed by Renzo Piano, and at the foot of the city’s vineyards near up-market wine taverns. Kurt Puchinger, chair of wohnfonds_wien, the city’s land and housing fund, tells me that the council “do not want to have a situation where you can identify the social status of a person by their home address.”

Despite the SDAP’s century-long efforts to promote social cohesion, recent years have seen the rise the FPO’s vote share at the expense of the left. Favoriten is a more solidly working class area of Vienna in the 10th district. There, according to Monica, “most vote for the Freedom Party because they are for stopping migration.” She pauses to consider her words. “Not stopping. Trying to find a way to filter them and control them. Every country has a problem like this.”

Monica’s feeling for the electoral preferences of each of the various Viennese districts proves accurate. After the war, Favoriten elected communists as their local representatives. The district's loyalties quickly switched to the social democrats, and until 2005 the party could comfortably expect to receive over half the votes there, consistently getting more than double the votes of both the far-right Freedom Party and the centre-right People’s Party. But in the most recent 2015 election, the Freedom Party won 24 seats and 38 per cent of the vote, only two points and one seat behind the social democrats. In Austria nationally, the People’s Party, headed by a 32-year-old leader, Sebastian Kurz, with Patrick Bateman overtones, has formed a government with the Freedom Party – but their coalition collapsed ignominiously in May.

Neither Austria as a whole, nor Favoriten in particular, are outliers. In France, Le Pen’s National Rally polls well in the Communist Party’s former “ceinture rouge” outside Paris. In Britain, Labour’s post-industrial heartlands are turning towards the Brexit Party, while blue collar workers in America’s rust belt have backed Donald Trump. And in Vienna, neither the impressive legacy of the SDAP nor the continually high standard of living (the city was rated as the world’s most liveable for the 10th time in 2018 by Mercer, the consultancy giant) is enough to stem the tide of right-wing populism.

Until he was unseated as leader following a corruption scandal in May, Heinz-Christian Strache positioned the FPO as the party of the working class, a guarantor of Austrian identity, and the protector of a generous welfare system now threatened by an influx of migrants. “We believe in our youth,” ran one of his slogans, “the [social democrats] in immigration.”

Sofia is a masseuse who has lived in Karl Marx-Hof for 19 years with her partner and his son. “People are angry with the social democrats now because of refugees,” she told me. “They should change this... They should say ‘we are on the left but we can’t accept everybody here.’” The view that the party have abandoned their traditional voters is widespread, but Sofia isn’t fond of the alternatives. “The FPO – the Nazis – you can’t vote for the Nazis… anyone who votes FPO isn’t my friend… But I won’t vote for the People’s Party because they do everything for rich people, not normal people.”

Sofia reserves her strongest criticism for the youthful Sebastian Kurz, who is likely to become head of another People’s Party-led coalition after elections in September. “I’m scared of him,” she says. “I think he’s a psychopath. I think he’s not a normal person.”

Like many Viennese, Sofia admires the legacy of Red Vienna: “The socialists did a lot of really good things. We are the only city in the world that has so much state housing. And they brought in pensions, health insurance, a lot of things.” But she’s not sure they will get her vote in 2019. In an era of polarisation and anti-establishment rhetoric, the most fertile yet unoccupied political ground seems to be for a radical, redistributive economic programme, coupled with a more conservative vision of shared responsibilities and values, national sovereignty, and sociocultural issues.

“Even in the working class areas of the city,” sighs Kurt Puchinger, the city’s housing fund chair, “less people are voting social democrat. And this is a pity.” 100 years since the old radical Social Democratic Workers’ Party was first elected by a restive, war-weary working class, the working class remains restive, but while the SDAP’s flagship Karl Marx-Hof still stands, the bricks no longer seem to be speaking for them.