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.