Friday, July 5, 2013

What's in a Name?

In case you missed it, I'm rerunning this offering from last October as my "Best of" summer post. When it originally ran, I was excited to hear from a number of people with their own examples of landmarks named after women. To see those, click here. Feel free to add your own in the comments section. And have a great summer!

In downtown Rochester, New York, a triple steel arch bridge carries Interstate 490 over the Genesee River. Originally called the Troup-Howell Bridge, this structure was renamed the Frederick Douglass-Susan B. Anthony Memorial Bridge in 2007, after two historic heavyweights with ties to the city. Locals affectionately call it the “Freddie-Sue Bridge,” as I learned on a visit there last week. It’s just one of several local monuments to Ms. Anthony. (There’s also a local Roller Derby skater with the truly inspired Derby name Susan B. Agony, but that’s a topic for another post.)

As someone who grew up in a world where almost all schools, bridges, and other public memorials were named after men, I rejoiced at the very visible presence of Ms. Anthony in her adopted hometown. Nothing pleases me more than to see women’s names carved in stone or displayed on highway signs. When I wrote Bull’s-Eye, my biography of Annie Oakley, I shared in the pride that members of the Annie Oakley Foundation felt when they successfully lobbied the Ohio legislature to rename a portion of US127 the Annie Oakley Memorial Pike. When I was working on Bylines, my biography of Nellie Bly, I even was thrilled upon driving past the dilapidated Nellie Bly Amusement Park in Brooklyn, New York. Alas, this tribute to Nellie’s round the world voyage was renamed the Adventurers Family Entertainment Center when it was refurbished in 2007.

It’s important for women to stamp their names on things, at least as important as it is for men. It helps us remind people of our achievements and our presence in the world. I know I’m not the only one who thinks so. A few years ago, I attended a weekend celebration of women who graduated from Princeton, and President Shirley Tilghman told the story behind the naming of the university’s newest residential college. The college, home to some 500 undergraduates, was built with donations from 30 donors, but primarily from then eBay CEO Meg Whitman, Class of 1977, and her family and colleagues. President Tilghman implored Whitman to lend her name to the college, but she relented only after the president pointed out that every other residential college, including Rockefeller, Wilson, and Forbes, was named for a man.
In 2003, I had the satisfaction of taking part in the dedication ceremony for another institution named for a woman. Madeline “Maddy” English was a veteran teacher and guidance counselor with the Everett, Massachusetts, Public Schools. She was also a standout third basewoman on the Racine Belles of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. After the town voted to name its newest school for her, Maddy asked me to represent the league at the event, since I was then on the board of the Players’ Association and lived only a few hundred miles away. I got to say a few words about her as an athlete and see her pride as the entire community celebrated her achievements. Sadly, Maddy passed away less than a year later, but her school and its “Madeline English Bulldogs” are still going strong.

Some time back, journalists Lynn Sherr and Jurate Kazickas put together a book titled Susan B. Anthony Slept Here: A Guide to American Women’s Landmarks. It’s full of parks, museums, libraries, and other sites that are significant to women’s history. I’d love to see a companion volume of buildings, bridges, and other structures named for women. Are there any in your neck of the woods? Let me know by commenting below.

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