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Putting women on the map

Catherine Carter

The names we give our city streets are indicators of our social hierarchies and values.

In a world built by men, it’s unsurprising that our streets and buildings, parks and squares memorialise the achievements of men who wielded power, held vast fortunes and reshaped history.

In Italy, just 3.5 per cent of Roman roads bear a woman’s name – and even then they are mostly nuns and saints. Of Montreal’s 6,000 streets, roads and boulevards, six per cent are named after women. And in New York’s Central Park, 23 statues honour men, while not a single statue celebrates the achievements of a real woman (Mother Goose and Alice in Wonderland don’t count!).

The story is similar around the world. A 2015 study of seven metropolises – London, Paris, San Francisco, Mumbai, New Delhi, Chennai, and Bangalore – found that just 27.5 per cent of streets were named after women.

Does this really matter? I think it does.

A male-dominated view of the world influences how we engage with our cities. Something as simple as the name of a street – and an understanding of the story behind the name – can change that view.

Some cities are rewriting history. In Barcelona, just seven per cent of streets were named after women in 1996. But a campaign to rename the streets celebrating Franco-era generals in favour of accomplished women has elevated this figure to just shy of 30 per cent.

With just three per cent of Paris’ acclaimed avenues named for women, a group of female activists has plastered dozens of street signs with the names of pioneering woman, like Madeleine Brès, the first French woman to earn a medical degree.

In Canberra, some of our newest streets in the suburb of Denman Prospect will venerate notable women. I think this is fantastic – but sadly not everyone agrees with me. I’ve been surprised to read some criticism from people who think recognising the achievements of female activists and social campaigners is a political statement.

Of course, the name of a street is a political statement. When we honour the achievement of an outstanding woman of yesterday, we encourage girls to become the outstanding women of tomorrow.

So, let me share you the names of some of the women who will be celebrated in Denman Prospect.

They include Dame Ada Norris, who devoted much of her life to championing women, children, the aged and people with disabilities, and Minnie Felstead, who fought for working women to receive a ‘living wage’.

They also include Dainere Monique Anthoney (pictured), a brave Canberran who during her short life raised awareness about paediatric brain tumours, and Norma Rigby, who helped to establish Koomarri, a school for children with intellectual disabilities, in the 1950s.

Julia Freebury, a feminist committed to equal opportunity will be honoured alongside anti-conscription activist Joyce Golgerth.

And the important work of Nessie Skuta, who fearlessly campaigned for the rights of Indigenous people, and Felicity Wishart, who led successful campaigns to protect rainforests and marine environments, will also be remembered.

We should acknowledge and recognise the past – especially here, in the nation’s capital – but look forward too.

The names of our streets are part of the daily experience of our city. While it is important that the achievements of women are reflected in a city’s shared spaces, this isn’t just about honouring a legacy. It’s about creating inclusive places where everyone feels they belong, and where everyone’s contribution matters.


Catherine Carter

A lover of books and beauty, a seasoned traveller and a creative thinker, Catherine Carter is passionate about Canberra. Head of the Property Council of Australia’s Canberra office for more than a decade, Catherine now provides specialist business and communication consultancy services with a focus on urban environments, new forms of collaboration, community building and diversity. Catherine was the recipient of the Telstra Business Women’s ACT Community and Government Award in 2010 and the National Association of Women in Construction Crystal Vision Award in 2017. More about the Author