Five Ways of Being Seen: How to Commemorate Women in Cities

Just like the workplaces and politics, also in public spaces women are under-represented. Walking down streets, noticing their names, the figures on public statues, the names of buildings, a picture of a male city is coming across. The contribution of women – in the past and in the present – is poorly reflected across all cities, without exception.

That “malescape” effects negatively also on the imagination and empowerment of future generations. The good news are that in recent years more and more people become aware and work towards changing that. More scholars and community activists are speaking about Historic Preservation, and pointing out to the message that urban tourist sites and local landmarks are sending: perpetuating the notion that men are the primary agents of historical change.

In this short overview, we look at 5 ways women are commemorated in urban public spaces, through US major cities.

(1) STREET NAMES: Turn Right On Ida B. Wells

Street names are the obvious way to write and read the heritage of a given city, and the values of it. We walk them, research them on our navigation apps, they become our postal addresses. While most streets are gender-neutral – like Main Road or North Way, when streets do carry names of people, those are rarely women’s names.

And the US is not alone here. Across the world, on average, close to 75% of streets with a person’s name are named after men.
According to recent National statistics, Second Street was the most common street name in the US, with more than 10,000 streets. There are nearly 5,000 streets named for George Washington and very few named after local women.

San Francisco street names search engine offers a compelling explanation of prioritizing men. The site’s categories are pioneers/gold rush; explorers; military; politicians, mayors; business; authors; wars.
The persons worthy of commemoration are those active in fields that were closed to women for most of history.

Also, once a street does get a female name, it is interesting to see what is the reason for it. Many times, female street names were given to daughters or wives of prominent men.
In New York’s Manhattan, for example, Ann Street is named after the wife of Capt. Thomas White.

In Downtown Detroit, 44 streets were named for men, and only one is named for a woman. Elizabeth Street was named by the first elected mayor of Detroit, John R. Williams, in honor of his daughter. In other parts of Detroit, the few female-named streets honor the wives and daughters of influential men. The most notable exception is Rosa Parks Boulevard, renamed in 1976 in honor of the iconic civil rights leader.

In 2019, Chicago saw its first major street named for a black woman. The city celebrated the official renaming of Congress Parkway into Ida B. Wells Drive. Behind the important step towards gender equality of street names, is another determined woman: Michelle Duster, who made efforts to pass the decision to honor her great-grandmother, the legendary journalist, civil rights activist and suffragist.

The same year, NASA renamed a street outside its Washington DC headquarters as “Hidden Figures Way” after its black female mathematicians. The new street name is referencing the title of a book and a film about the lives of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, who contributed to space flight in the 1960s.

A beautiful project of commemorating “extraordinary women who have, since the beginning, been shapers and heroes” of New York City, is the City of Women Poster Map, made by Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro.

Here are more interesting examples of streets named after women in major US cities:

Boston: Melnea Cass Blvd
Named after local community and civil rights activist. Cass co-founded the Boston branch of the first African-American labor union Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids.

New Orleans: Ursulines Ave
Named after the Ursuline nuns that arrived in the area in the 18th century on a mission to provide education to local young women. The high percent of literacy among women in colonial NOLA is attributed to the nuns’ work.

New York: Cabrini Boulevard
Named after Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini, who founded hospitals and schools in Chicago, and is the first American citizen to be canonized a saint by the Roman Catholic Church.

San Francisco: Nancy Pelosi Drive
Named after the Congresswoman who has represented San Francisco since 1987.

Washington DC: Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue
Named after the educator, religious leader, civil rights activist, and businesswoman, famous for her 1900 speech “How the Sisters Are Hindered from Helping” and founder of National Training School for Women and Girls.

Los Angeles: Pickford Street
Named for Mary Pickford, a popular film actress who produced her own movies.

Tucson: Ina Road
Named in honor of Ina Gittings, who held various roles at the University of Arizona, serving as the first director of the physical education department for women.

(2) PARKS: A Picnic with Gwendolyn Brooks

Similar to streets, also names of public parks, squares, plazas, and intersections, are dominated by male personalities.

A vivid example of that reality can be found in San Francisco. There is only one recognized public park in the city that is named after a woman – Mary Ellen Pleasant Memorial Park. Ironically, it is considered to be the smallest public park in the city.

The park was named after Mary Ellen Pleasant – who was born enslaved in the early 19th century, was part of the Underground Railway, and later became one of the first black female American millionaires. Her Park doesn’t even have a patch of grass, but it does have six eucalyptus trees that she had planted herself.

Here are a few interesting examples of parks named after women in US major cities:

Boston: 6 parks are named after women
Among them is Rose Kennedy Green Parkway, named after Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, the matriarch of the Kennedy Family

Chicago: 50 parks are named after women, which sounds good, but then its only 10% of all city’s parks
Among them is Brooks Park, renamed after poet Gwendolyn Brooks in 2004 (formerly known as Hyacinth Park)

New Orleans: 2 parks are named after women
Among them is Margaret Place Park, named after Margaret Haughery, who dedicated her life to supporting the city’s orphans in the 19th century

New York City: 74 parks are named after women, 5% of all the parks in the city
Among them is Ilka Tanya Payan Park, named in 2002 after Dominican-born Ilka Tanya Payan, soap opera star, immigration lawyer, and HIV activist

(3) SCULPTURES: Suffragists Are Breaking The Bronze Sealing

“Girls can’t be what they can’t see” – those words by Washington-based psychologist Lynette Long express exactly the reality and its consequences on future generations when it comes to gender representation in public sculptures. Of the public outdoor sculptures of real people across the US, less than 10% are of women, only 394 women sculptures compared with 4,799 of men.

There are many female representations in public sculptures, but it is important to separate those anonymous, allegoric, or fictional women from real women.

In New York City, this distinction is particularly noticeable. Its most iconic and big outdoor sculpture – Statue of Liberty – is of an allegoric woman, a “no one” who happens to represent a value, an idea.

Although there are 200 figurative statues around the city, only 5 are depicting real women, and 3 are of fictional characters: Alice in Wonderland, Shakespeare’s Juliet, and Mother Goose.

The City’s Central Park was the focus of gender equality conversation recently. It was revealed that among the 23 historical figures sculpted on its premises, there is not a single one of a real woman. Artist Meredith Bergmann has won the privilege of being the first artist to correct that. She designed a statue of suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth to be erected in Central Park in 2020.
“The more images of women there are to look up to, the more inspired young women will be to aim higher and be more ambitious,” said the artist.
“Breaking the bronze ceiling” by creating more statues of real women is the mission of Monumental Women, a volunteers organization that was campaigning for the Central Park commission.

2020 is also the year when New York is to see a new public statue of Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to serve in the House of Representatives. It will be erected outside Prospect Park. Behind this project is “She Built NYC” initiative to expand the representation of women in public art and monuments. This time it is a municipal effort and funding.

The first real local woman honored with a statue in the US is considered to be Hannah Duston. Her statue was erected in 1874 in Boscawen, New Hampshire. Duston was a colonial Massachusetts Puritan who killed ten of the Native Americans who held her hostage. The statue, where the female figure is holding a tomahawk and human scalps, is problematized in recent years since it is used as part of a narrative defending the colonial violence against Native Americans.

Probably the next oldest statue of a real woman in the US is in New Orleans. The statue of Margaret Haughery was erected in 1884. Additional women who grace the city’s public spaces are Sophie B Wright, a local educator, who opened a school, and Mahalia Jackson, the record-breaking Gospel singer who was born and raised in New Orleans.

Here are more interesting examples of outdoor public statues designed after real women in US major cities:

Boston: 5 public statues of real women
Boston is probably the most progressive city in terms of working for more equal gender representation in the statues department. Its landmark statue, probably the most famous tribute to real women in the US cities, is Boston Women’s Memorial – a life-sized installation of three sculptures depicting Abigail Adams, Phillis Wheatley, and Lucy Stone. It was created by female poet and artist Meredith Bergmann in 2003.

Chicago: 4 public statues of real women
Among them is Judge Laura Cha-Yu Liu sculpture in Ping Tom Park, honoring the First Asian-American Appellate Court Judge in Illinois; It is the first bronze portrait sculpture of a woman in a City of Chicago park.

Also worthy of note is the Jane Addams memorial sculpture “Helping Hands”, created by 80 years old artist Louise Joséphine Bourgeois in Chicago Women’s Park and Gardens in the South Loop.

San Francisco: 3 public statues of real women
While 84 statues of historical men are found in public spaces, they are joined by Dianne Feinstein, who was a Senator and the city’s Mayor, Florence Nightingale, a nurse, and artist Georgia O’Keeffe.

(4) BUILDINGS: Landlord’s Landmark

Many of the buildings that carry a person’s names are either that person’s home-turned-landmark or museums in a person’s honor. As women had no right to own property during a large part of US history, their names often appear together with, and second to, their husband’s name.

Boston has two exceptional buildings in this regard, both in the field of culture:
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was launched in 1903 as the home of art patron and collector Isabella Stewart Gardner. The museum still hosts concerts, lectures, and exhibitions, including dance performances. Since 1992 the museum has hosted artist-in-residence, many of them female.

Mary Baker Eddy Library is an open archive of educational materials by the leading religious leader, teacher, and writer. Mary Baker Eddy was a pioneer in exploring and advancing the link between spirituality and health, which she coined as Christian Science. The library houses another tourist attraction – The Mapparium – a three-story glass globe, providing a three-dimensional perspective of the world of 1935.

(5) STREET ART: Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

While most of the ways to commemorate women in public spaces are permanent and require long process and funding to be done, street art offers a refreshing alternative.

What started as a masculine subculture of self-motivated graffiti, has now grown to the trend of institutionalized murals, which allow more visibility to female artists: without the fear of being arrested, they can now do their work in daylight on authorized walls, and get name credit for it.

When they get to the streets, female urban artists tend to use their art to speak to “Girl Power” and highlight women. Street art is usually temporary; therefore, sometimes you might arrive at a location, and the work will not be presented there anymore.

Some art thinkers claim that the temporary nature of the works has feminine energy about it, embracing change and the present, as opposed to the idea of everlasting stone carvings of men.

This medium allows for more contemporary, alive, real women to be honored. An excellent example of such is Alexandria Ocasio Cortez Mural by Lexi Bella in New York City’s First Street Green Art Park. The portrait is celebrating the popularity of the youngest woman ever to serve in the United States Congress, while she is in the office. The mural was created as part of the Inspire Change Art Festival.

Some street artists embrace the temporary nature of their craft even to a further degree. A good example of such is also found in New York City – the annual intervention “Chalk” by Ruth Sergel. The public art project commemorates the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which took the lives of 146 seamstresses. Since 2004, every March 25th, volunteers write in chalk the names of the victims in the places where they lived.

The field of public art, as temporary as chalk sometimes, allows more women to participate in urban acts of commemoration as active artists of various disciplines. Its relative ease of production also makes it open for women who weren’t as famous as some, but are as worthy.

Check out WWP’s itineraries to wander the streets following #MadeByWomen murals in Washington, DC, New York City, San Francisco, and Cambridge.

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