As we think about how to design more inclusive cities, it's important also to reflect on the historical erasure of female fighters, musicians and scientists.
With 24 streets dedicated to her, the most celebrated woman on the streets of Europe is renowned scientist Marie Curie. But she does not always get her own header: her husband's name, Pierre, almost always precedes her on the plaques — even if he has one fewer Nobel Prize than she does.
A subtle reminder
The Mapping Diversity platform, developed by Sheldon Studio and initiated by Obc Transeuropa with other partners in the European data journalism network, examines maps of 30 cities across 17 European countries. Out of 145,933 streets and squares, 91% of those named after people are dedicated to men, the study reveals.
Taking two steps in any metropolis will prove this. “It is a subtle but powerful reminder of who our society values,” the study's authors write. The results: 47,842 named after men, versus just 4,779 named after women.
History is written by those who win
The purpose of the study is to reveal the lack of diversity in the context of historical narratives. History is written by those who win, and so far the past has been overwhelmingly narrated through a male point of view; a perspective from which the scientific, military, political or cultural achievements of women, non-binary individuals and people of color are not observed, much less celebrated.
Goddesses and Saints
Instead, the focus is on martyrs or goddesses like Diana, the Roman goddess of the hunt and wild animals, or Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty.
There are in fact 365 streets and squares dedicated to the Virgin Mary, spread over 25 of the 30 European cities surveyed. Second in the overall ranking of women is St. Anne, with 35 streets. She is usually described as a “housewife,” and was Mary's mother. The first non-religious woman (third among all women) is physicist Marie Curie. The second, with only 10 streets named after her, is Polish writer Stefania Sempołowska (12th in the overall ranking). Separating the two is a long list of saints, from Teresa of Avila to Clare of Assisi.
To compare with men, the most popular are St. Peter, St. Paul and Ludwig van Beethoven (to whom 26, 23 and 18 streets or squares are dedicated). Those numbers are low when compared with those of Mary and Anne, but this is because the list of men to whom streets or squares have been named is very large. The deserving include the fictional Frankenstein or, worse, the Italian fascist general Aldo Tarabella.
No one is excluded, while the presence of women, even when holy, remains insignificant.
Most inclusive cities
Among capital cities, the most inclusive city in Europe is Stockholm, with just 19.5% of streets named after women. It is followed by Madrid (18.7%), Copenhagen (13.4%) and Berlin (12.2%). At the bottom of the list are Prague (4.3%) and Athens (4.5%).
In Italy, just 6.6% of streets are dedicated to women: only 1,626 out of 24,527 streets. Excluding those dedicated to the Virgin Mary leaves just 959. People such as Nobel laureate neurologist Rita Levi Montalcini, journalist Oriana Fallaci or cyclist Alfonsina Strada each have a street, but astrophysicist Margherita Hack is not on the list.
Appreciated abroad is Maria Montessori, inventor of the Montessori method of education: four streets are named for her, including one in Barcelona and one in Vienna. The second most internationally celebrated non-religious Italian woman is Anna Magnani, who starred in the film Rome, Open City; she has a street named after her in Brussels. The most popular Italian abroad is, perhaps obviously, Christopher Columbus: eleven cities in Europe have immortalized him with glorious promenades and large squares. Galileo Galilei and Dante follow him.
“Women have not had visibility in public spaces, and this exclusion is evident in toponymy,” says Maria Pia Ercolini, founder of Toponomastica femminile ("Female Toponymy"), an association that aims to restore visibility to women who have contributed to improving society.
It is crucial that everyone knows their work
“Providing visible role models increases girls’ self-esteem,” she says. “Gender-based violence depends on women being perceived as objects and property, which is why it is crucial that everyone knows their work. In this way, girls discover ambitions and desires through history, and children acknowledge the value of women.”
Together with the National Association of Italian Municipalities, Ercolini launched the “Three women, three streets” campaign, which promotes naming city spaces after three women of local, national and international significance every March 8. For 2023, the request is to give space to victims of state terrorism or women who have fought for democracy and rights in Iran and Afghanistan.
Certainly, increasing the percentage of streets and squares dedicated to prominent female figures will not be enough to eradicate a patriarchal culture that forgets women. But research such as this and the ongoing activities of organizations and institutions dedicated to toponymy and trying to imagine a different model of cities are a step toward more inclusive public space.
This work is especially important for the next generations of women who, by reading and finding themselves, will perhaps be more ready to become aware of their value and the role they can play in society.
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