WHO ARE GENEVA’S BACKSTREET GIRLS?
by Alexandra Osvàth
Have you ever given much thought to street names? I certainly hadn’t, until I noticed new pink street name signs popping up around Geneva. Looking closer, I realised these signs feature women’s names as an alternative to the official street names, most of which were male figures in Geneva’s history.
Yet surely there must be more women who have made a mark on this city? The city has two criteria for naming a street after someone: the person must have made a significant contribution to Geneva’s history, and must have passed away at least 10 years ago.
THINGS TO DO IN GENEVA speaks to a member of l’Escouade, Justine Barton, to dig deeper.
GENDER INEQUALITY ON THE STREET
“We live in a historically patriarchal society, and streets were named accordingly,” says Justine.
“Even the few streets that were named after women were never big boulevards or major roads. You’ll find women’s names on small backstreets or far from the city centre.”
The issue runs deeper than just street names, however.
“With such poor representation in the naming of streets, women continue to be rendered invisible in public spaces,” Justine explains.
“Historically, men held publicly acclaimed positions: in fields, in factories or in offices,” Justine says. “They were visible.
They were paid. Women, on the other hand, had to work in their homes. Unseen, unpaid. They were financially dependent on their husbands, fathers, brothers.”
“Even today, women who have managed to break the glass ceiling in the public sphere continue to face many types of harrassment,” she says. “And female domestic workers are still quite invisible to the public eye.”
The members of l’Escouade wanted to get people talking about these issues, so the 100Elles* project was born.
“We contacted historians at the University of Geneva, and together selected 100 women who meet the city’s criteria for street names,” Justine says. “The project involves writing detailed biographies of each woman. However, our research has shown us that history isn’t kind to minorities or women whose work was less valued, or even ignored, by society.”
“Most of the women we were able to research were wealthy white women. History has erased the others.”
STREET NAMES REPRESENT WHO WE ARE…
“The first step in our project is informing the public,” Justine explains. “We want people to think about these issues, and we want a conversation to begin. Street names represent our addresses, our living spaces, and a part of our identities. Because of this, they also contribute to maintaining gender inequalities.”
“If mostly men are represented in public spaces, women feel excluded from society,” she says. “Urban spaces are still designed by and for men, and don’t take into consideration the needs of all inhabitants—men and women. Furthermore, women are marginalised and constantly reminded that they don’t belong.”
The 100Elles* project selected fuchsia, a shade of violet, for their street signs bearing women’s names. The colour represents the feminist movement, and contrasts the official blue street name signs which represent mostly men.
The fuchsia signs have been placed under the official street name signs with the support of the city of Geneva. They will be displayed for one year, until June 2020.
WILL GENEVA OFFICIALLY RENAME THE STREETS?
In 2005, the city created a division to officially promote the equality of women. Since then, 19 streets have been named after women. But the process for officially renaming streets involves some red tape.
“Each commune first proposes a street name, which then goes before the nomenclature commission of the canton of Geneva,” Justine explains.
In March of this year, the Geneva parliament accepted a motion to improve the distribution of 100 street names over the next three years. The idea is to increase the number of main streets and avenues that are named after women.
“But it’s difficult, because you can’t just change the name of an important boulevard overnight,” Justine says. “Especially on heavily populated streets, people might resist having to change their addresses.”
Starting the conversation, then, is key.
Have you seen any fuchsia street name signs in your neighborhood?
An intersectional feminist association, l’Escouade was founded in November 2017 by four friends. The group strives “to fight against all forms of oppression resulting from sexism, racism and capitalism”. More information may be found on their website (in French).