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Are our street names sexist?

  • 11 April 2012
  • From the section Magazine
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Streets named after men

A tiny proportion of streets in Rome are named after women, while nearly half are named after men - and it is a similar story in other major cities around the world. Outrageous sexism, a simple fact of history, or both?

Place your finger on a street map and it's far more likely to land on a road named after a man than one named after a woman. You may not have given it much thought, but Maria Pia Ercolini has. The geography teacher in Rome says her city's landscape is dominated by men and wants that to change.

It all began when she wrote a cultural guide to Rome, celebrating the role of women in the city's history.

"During the research I realised that you never see traces of women. History just cancelled the women - they're not here," she says.

Ercolini and a team of 26 women painstakingly went through every one of Rome's 16,550 streets to determine the gender balance.

They found that 7,575 (45.7%) of the city's streets were named after men and just 580 (3.5%) were named after women.

"That's proof of the discrimination," she says.

"Men made the history - the known history. In Italy it is very strong because we have so many [male] saints and religious people like the Pope. Religion is so full of men."

Of Rome's eight main streets, two are named after men - the Via Cavour, referring to Camillo Cavour, a leader of Italy's 19th Century unification struggle, and Via Giulia, named after "Fearsome" Pope Julius II.

The other six are named after inanimate things, from the Via del Corso, which alludes to a medieval horse race, to the Via Sacra, so-called because it passes key religious sites in the ancient Roman Forum.

Local authorities, which have the final say over street names, are now being urged to redress the balance.

Ercolini has set up the Toponomastica femminile Facebook group , as a rallying point for her campaign, and 2,600 people have signed up as members.

"We don't want to re-name streets. That would be very unpopular," she explains.

"We want new streets in Rome to be named after women. There are lots of new developments around the city."

Ercolini and her team have studied other Italian cities, from Florence to Milan, and found a similar pattern.

Inspired by the Italian project, a group of women in Spain surveyed Madrid's streets. It fared a bit better than Rome, with nearly 7% of streets named after women, and 27% after men.

Work has begun on Paris, and while the data has not been fully analysed, Ercolini estimates that a street there is around five times more likely to be named after a man than a woman.

To the best of her knowledge no country has a gender-based street naming policy. But some regional authorities are beginning to address the issue - including Afghanistan's only province with a female governor, Bamiyan, where a whole new town is being built.

London taxi driver Tina Kiddell estimates that something like twice as many streets in London are named after men than women.

She describes herself as "a woman in a man's world" and has an in-depth knowledge of the city, after driving people around it for 24 years.

When not behind the wheel, she spends much of her spare time poring over a copy of The London Encyclopaedia, a comprehensive reference book of more than 1,000 pages.

"Every single road has got a story. For example, Gower Street was named in 1790 after a lady called Lady Gertrude Leveson-Gower, who married the fourth Duke of Bedford," she says.

"And you have Bedford Square at the end of Gower Street - so there's your little story about a family marrying together and having the two names in one area where they had houses and owned land."

Kiddell is proud of her city's history and the stories behind it and is not bothered by London's somewhat male-dominated street map.

"When the streets were named, women were subservient to men. Whether that was right or wrong at that time, it was the way it was," she says.

"Women have only been recognised as something worth noting in the latter years. You can't change history."

But Julia Long from the London Feminist Network says the women in Rome are absolutely right to question the status quo.

"I would love to see a similar project taken up in London. It would play a big part in ensuring that women feel recognised and valued in our city," she says.

Long is concerned about the impact this has on the self-esteem of women and girls. She also thinks it gives men an inflated sense of entitlement and self-worth.

"Street names are a very important form of recognition. They are a way of immortalising a person, and of holding in high esteem their achievements.

"The message conveyed by the naming of such a disproportionate number of streets after men is that men are of more value and importance than women," she argues.

Ercolini's project is starting to gain political backing. The wife of the Mayor of Rome, Isabella Rauti, has said the shortage of streets named after women reflects "centuries of discrimination".

On International Women's Day last month, Toponomastica femminile launched a campaign to get three pedestrian walkways in public parks named after women.

The president of Rome's 15th district has agreed to dedicate two parks to Elena Cornaro Piscopia, the first woman to earn a doctorate, and Laura Bassi, the first woman to officially teach at a European university.

Ercolini says the president of the second district is also interested.

"It's having a big effect," she says.

"I've fought all my life to get recognition for women so this is a big symbol for us. I'm happy, it's satisfying."

Maria Pia Ercolini spoke to Newshour on the BBC World Service.

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