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De Bovengrondse honour women with their street sign protest
De Bovengrondse honour prominent women with their street sign protestcourtesy of De Bovengrondse

Feminist activists have renamed Dutch street signs after iconic women

A central Amsterdam road has been tagged Beyoncé Boulevard

88 per cent of streets in the Netherlands biggest cities are named after men, so a feminist collective took to the streets to do some unofficial renaming, in honour of women pop megastars, pioneering mathematicians, writers, and revolutionaries.  

De Bovengrondse is a Dutch group that erected signs with the names of women across politics, activism, music, the arts, and sport in 11 different Dutch cities and on 43 streets. The blue and white signs have been hung underneath the originals to highlight the change.

Bregje Hofstede, a founding member of the group, tells Dazed that they chose 12 women to represent the 12 per cent of streets in major cities like Amsterdam, Utrecht, and Groningen named after women. Besides Beyoncé Boulevard, there’s roads honouring philosopher and writer May Wollstonecraft, British mathematician Ada Lovelace who designed the first algorithm, South African human rights activist Tania Leon, the first woman elected to Dutch parliament, and 17th century painter Judith Leyster.

“These 12 women had to suggest some of the breadth, richness and diversity of the women currently absent (or almost absent) from the cityscape,” says Hofstede. 

“(We want to) raise awareness about the ways in which women's achievements are often undervalued or invisible, using the example of street names,” she adds. “Since everybody lives in a street!” 

Hofstede, a journalist at the Dutch publication The Correspondent, was part of the research project analysing Amsterdam’s street names, finding that of the few women that showed up, many were Greek goddesses of wives of famous men. “That leaves out a lot of women who did so much to help build this country,” she says. 

Hofstede affirms that this goes beyond street sign activism, noting that the 88 per cent figure is reflected in male experts cited in Dutch media, with 70 per cent of television speakers and guests being male also. 

“What makes street names particularly interesting, is precisely the fact that they are so mundane. You see them, hear them announced on public transport, you write them down, never once thinking about them. Yet they form a kind of canon of ‘Important People’, people we collectively revere. By repeating these names every day, we all internalise them. Imagine if 88 per cent of those names would be women’s. What message would that send to a girl growing up? What if more people literally felt at home with the names of great women?”

Hofstede adds that street names don’t just record history, but reflect political choices. “After political upheavals, the first things to be changed are statues and street names,” she adds. “They tell a part of our history, but not all of it. We hope to spread the message that many things that we regard as perfectly normal are in fact political. Street names present a particular view of history, but the message they send can be critically examined.” 

Aside from their street sign protest, the group participated in debate surrounding the lack of public toilets for women in Amsterdam – “we made the point that public space is designed to accommodate men more than women,” Hofstede says. Additionally, they’re working on collaborating with groups of migrant domestic workers in the Netherlands.

De Bovengrondse hope to inspire others to make their own street signs demonstrations, and plan to create and distribute their designs for free download online soon. Keep up with what the group is doing here.