Next step, Sylvia Plath! Why it’s time to redesign the London Underground map | International Women’s Day
OWhen I was a baby feminist, I argued with friends that public space was political. I had been radicalized by my teenage years, sick to the teeth of street harassment from men who seemed to think the streets were theirs to roam freely, while women were relegated to decorating. It wasn’t a regular occurrence, but it happened enough times to infuriate me. On my way home from school in London, in uniform, I had been followed, had my arm torn off and I had been approached at least once by a man who displayed stalking tendencies. As I grew older, I understood these actions as displays of dominance and was disgusted. Besides my indignation, I was terribly disappointed. I had been raised in this city and I hated that this kind of behavior was an obstacle to my desire for independence and freedom as a teenager.
I had been navigating public transport alone for years by then, and it took me everywhere I wanted to go. Once I had exhausted my immediate surroundings on foot, I would take the Piccadilly line to concerts at the now bulldozed Astoria on Charing Cross Road. I would hop on the Hammersmith and City line, a portal to dancing all day at the Notting Hill Carnival. The Circle line made me feel like an intellectual in the museums of South Kensington. There was no option back then to outsource travel plans to a smart little app, so to get anywhere, like everyone else, I had to study the subway map to find out how get to my destination. If I was feeling brave, I would sometimes hop on the tube at Turnpike Lane and work as I went, staring at the mini-maps inside the carriage and leaning awkwardly into whoever sat in the seat below. I didn’t need a car. The map in my pocket unlocked my city.
Wonder, exploration, ownership, recovery – these are all feelings I hoped to replicate when Emma Watson approached me to be part of a project reimagining Transport for London’s iconic underground map. Along with American author Rebecca Solnit, we replaced each station name with the name of a woman. A few years ago, Watson had a conversation with Solnit, who had recently completed a book with geographer Joshua Jelly-Schapiro. Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas is a book of essays highlighting stories from around the city, complete with 26 maps. One of the maps is a replica of the Metropolitan Transport Authority’s New York City subway map. Each of the MTA’s 472 subway stations has had its original name replaced with the name of a woman or a women-led collective. The names were contemporary and historic, including people in the entertainment industry, writers, artists, women’s rights agitators and a former first lady of the United States. Instead of subway stops named Penn Station, Bleecker Street, and Grand Central, there was a station named after Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable, a station named after musician Grace Jones, and a station named after the highly revered black. lesbian poet Audre Lorde.
In her conversation with Solnit, Watson had expressed her admiration for this feminist version of the New York subway map, and Solnit had immediately suggested that they create a London version.
The tube map has been reinvented many times before. Simon Patterson’s 1992 lithograph The Great Bear is the best known. In this work, metro stations are named after famous personalities, including religious figures, footballers and philosophers. A 2006 version of the hit map, published by the Guardian, attempted to illustrate the links between different British musicians and genres of music.
Turner Prize-winning artist Lubaina Himid’s 2011 work Moments and Connections also echoed the hit chart. A retrospective map of three key exhibitions she curated in the 1980s which brought black British and Asian female artists from the fringes to the centre, an artery-like line cuts through the middle, naming almost all the artists she she exposed. Their names are interspersed with lines of hits highlighting the creative groups, educational establishments, exhibitions and publications that played a key role in Britain’s black art movement. The map was created prior to Himid’s 2012 Thin Black Line(s) exhibition at Tate Britain. More recently, in 2017, art collective Thick/er Black Lines released a version of the map, titled We Apologize For the Delay to Your Journey, spotlighting unsung black British women and women in the art world. And in 2021, Transport for London, alongside the Black Cultural Archives, released a Black History Tube Map, highlighting the historic contributions of Black Londoners to the city. Everyone who redraws the map knows in their bones that there is power in a name.
So many different maps, signaling so much brilliant work. Yet today’s official metro map only has three stops named after women. The Seven Sisters station is named after the Hibbert sisters, who lived in the late 19th century and are known to have each planted a tree in the area. The other two stations are named after Queen Victoria (the obvious – Victoria station, but Lancaster Gate is also named after one of her royal titles).
In fact, many London Underground station names honor landowners or members of the monarchy. The average Tube traveler might not know that Leicester Square is named after Robert Sidney, the second Earl of Leicester, or that Latimer Road station is named after wealthy merchant Edward Latymer. But every man’s heritage lives in the denomination. So many statues and place names work to commemorate the power of their time, signaling that the general public should be concerned with deference to those who hoard capital or own land.
The City of Women London map centers different values. This map celebrates women and non-binary people with deep ties to the city. They are people who have accomplished extraordinary things in their field, reached new heights or served as the nucleus of social movements. We have done our best to place every woman or non-binary person at a station that is relevant to their life, whether they lived, grew up, organized or worked in the area.
Some of our stations are named after wealthy people, but they don’t appear on the map simply because of what they owned. Some are British, others were born overseas. On this card are people who have expanded the possibilities of what a woman could be. Among them, Claudia Jones, the journalist, black feminist and one of the founders of the Notting Hill Carnival, and the fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, whose clothes have left an indelible mark on London with the heritage of its punk scene.
Some of our metro stations celebrate collectives rather than individuals. Their names represent historic sites of protest led by women. We placed two black feminist organizations – Awaz, the UK Asian women’s collective; and Owaad, the Organization for Women of African and Asian Descent – at Heathrow Terminals 2 and 3. In 1979, they staged a picket at Heathrow to protest the British government’s invasive virginity testing of migrant women arriving in the country.
At the other end of the map, there was no option for us for Bow Road other than the match girls. Another powerful women’s collective, operating nearly 100 years earlier in London’s East End, the 1,400 working-class women and girls working at Bryant & May’s match factory in Bow set out strike and changed the course of the British labor movement.
Our map also commemorates places of tragedy. Victoria Station is renamed in honor of transport worker Belly Mujinga, who died of complications from Covid-19 during the first UK-wide lockdown.
The now-closed Holloway Women’s Prison also takes up a spot on the map. It is a place where feminist activists have long been imprisoned for their political action, from suffragists in the early 20th century to the women of the Greenham Common peace camp in the 1980s. Feminist direct action group Sisters Uncut has occupied the reception center in 2017, writing in the Guardian that: “Prisons are an inhuman answer to the social problems faced by vulnerable women. One such vulnerable woman was Sarah Reed, a young black woman with a history of mental health issues, who in 2016 was found dead in her cell after being denied proper medical attention. Just four years earlier, she had faced an incident of shocking brutality also from the state: she was attacked by a Metropolitan Police officer who accused her of shoplifting. The officer was later convicted of common assault for the attack. By marking these tragedies, we aim to commemorate the people who have been abandoned by our society, as well as those who have defied the odds.
London has long been a place of protest, common cause, collectivism and collaboration. It is a city where decadence and extreme poverty coexist. It is a place where women from all over the world have traveled in order to unfold their true selves, often in collaboration with each other. This map may not change the world, but I hope it inspires you to take a second look at places you might once have taken for granted, to imagine the lives lived by women before you and think about the possibilities of what you could create. This map goes against any claim that the city is not for us.