Street Name Sexism is the New Confederate Statue

New Orleans made national news last week when its city council voted 6-1 to remove four statues honoring Confederate president Jefferson Davis, General P.G.T. Beauregard, the Battle of Liberty Place, and even General Robert E. Lee whose likeness sits atop a massive column at the center of a plaza that shares his name.

While the decision would be a no-brainer on the East or West coasts, in the deep American south the move was controversial, as many cling to these symbols as representing Southern Heritage, not racism. While some are more open about their racism than others, most using the heritage jargon do so purely to mask their true malcontent.

Like the Confederate flag, most advocates for their removal state they don’t wish the sculptures to be destroyed, or for what they represent to be forgotten, but instead such relics belong in museums, not as objects to honor in our public commons.

It’s hard to ignore what a clear history of hatred and violence that slavery was, and still is in many parts of the world. But there’s other pervasive legacies woven into our urban fabric that are far less evident.

Michigan Radio recently ran a piece on the 55 major streets that make up downtown Detroit. Their names had a diversity of origins, many being named after civil rights leaders, 19th century military forts, early Detroit civic leaders, and like most places, streets named after other cities.

The majority of Detroit’s core streets, 34 of them, were named after men. But only 1, Elizabeth Street, was named after a woman, and was done so by Detroit’s first elected mayor John R. Williams to honor his daughter.

Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean the men Detroit’s streets were named after were underserving of the recognition. But it does illustrate that back when it was time to name everything settlers were building on their newly colonized land, it was overwhelmingly men who occupied rolls considered worthy of bestowing lasting gratitude at the time.

Yet women have always played significant roles in history, though their contributions often aren’t widely recognized until generations later (think Sojourner Truth or Alice Paul). This highlights another layer of gender bias altogether.

Aruna Sankaranarayanan of the company Mapbox has been studying this phenomenon in cities around the world, “Places and streets named after personalities are indicators of social hierarchy in a city. The results are fascinating, and maybe not surprising: streets named after men are more numerous and more centrally located than streets named after women in the metro areas we analyzed. Between Bengaluru, Chennai, London, Mumbai, New Delhi, Paris, and San Francisco, the percentage of streets named after women is an average of 27.5%

This kind of research is essential to better understanding the forces that shape the cities around us, and in shaping better values for the gentler utopias of the future.

While we’re dismantling monuments to white supremacy, we should continue to intelligently search for less visible hierarchies. While we’re focusing on gender wage gaps, maybe it’s also time to start renaming a few streets after some of those ill-behaved women who so often made history.

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