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.

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.