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Next stop, Sylvia Plath! Why it is time to redraw the London Underground map

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Show caption From left: Amy Winehouse (Camden Town), Reni Eddo-Lodge, Munroe Bergdorf (Piccadilly Circus) and Zadie Smith (Queen’s Park). Composite: Guardian Design; Matt Dunham/AP; Suki Dhanda; Alicia Canter; Murdo Macleod/The Guardian; International Women’s Day Next stop, Sylvia Plath! Why it is time to redraw the London Underground map The official London tube map has only three stops named after women. Together with the actor Emma Watson and the author Rebecca Solnit, I’ve been working on a feminist alternative. Here’s the story behind our contribution to International Women’s Day Reni Eddo-Lodge Mon 7 Mar 2022 10.00 GMT Share on Facebook

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When I was a baby feminist, I would argue with friends that public space was political. I had been radicalised by my teenage years, sick to the back teeth of street harassment from men who seemed to think that the streets were theirs to roam freely, while women were relegated to decoration. It wasn’t a regular occurrence, but it happened enough times to enrage me. Walking home from school in London, in uniform, I had been followed, had my arm snatched and 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 I was disgusted. Alongside my indignation, I was crushingly disappointed. I had been raised in this city and hated that this kind of behaviour was an impediment to my teenage desire for autonomy and freedom.

I had been navigating public transport by myself for years at that point, and it took me everywhere I wanted to go. Once I had exhausted my immediate surroundings on foot, I’d take the Piccadilly line to gigs at the now bulldozed Astoria on Charing Cross Road. I’d jump on the Hammersmith and City line, a portal to dancing all day at 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 clever little app, so in order to go anywhere I, like everyone else, would have to study the tube map to find out how to get to my destination. If I was feeling brave, I’d sometimes jump on the tube at Turnpike Lane and work it out as I went along, peering at the mini maps inside the train carriage and looming awkwardly over whoever was sitting in the seat beneath. I didn’t need a car. The map in my pocket opened up my city.

From left: Helen Sharman (High Street Kensington), Mary Seacole (Paddington), Sylvia Plath (Swiss Cottage) and Jane Goodall (Regent’s Park). Composite: Guardian Design; Alamy; Damian Dovarganes/AP

Wonder, exploration, ownership, reclaiming – these are all feelings I hoped to replicate when Emma Watson approached me to be a part of a project reimagining Transport for London’s iconic underground map. Alongside the American author Rebecca Solnit, we have replaced every name of a station with the name of a woman. A few years ago, Watson had been in conversation with Solnit, who had recently completed a book with the geographer Joshua Jelly-Schapiro. Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas is a book of essays highlighting stories of the city, complemented by 26 maps. One of the maps is a replica of the Metropolitan Transport Authority’s map of the New York City Subway. Every single one 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 from the entertainment industry, writers, artists, agitators for women’s rights 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 the Pulitzer prize-winning architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable, a station named after the musician Grace Jones, and a station named after the much-venerated black lesbian poet Audre Lorde.

In her conversation with Solnit, Watson had expressed her admiration of 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 reimagined many times before. Simon Patterson’s 1992 lithograph The Great Bear is the most well known. In this work, tube stations are named after famous people including religious figures, footballers and philosophers. A 2006 version of the tube map, published by the Guardian, endeavoured to illustrate the links between different British musicians and musical genres.

Rebecca Solnit and Emma Watson. Photograph: PR

Turner prize-winning artist Lubaina Himid’s 2011 work Moments and Connections echoed the tube map, too. A retrospective map of three key exhibitions she curated in the 1980s that brought black and Asian British female artists from the margins to the centre, an artery-like line cuts through the middle, naming almost all of the artists she exhibited. Their names are intersected by tube lines highlighting the creative groups, learning institutions, exhibitions and publications that have been key to 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, the art collective Thick/er Black Lines released a version of the map, titled We Apologise For the Delay to Your Journey, highlighting unsung black British women and femmes of the art world. And in 2021, Transport for London, alongside the Black Cultural Archives, released a black history tube map, putting front and centre the historic contributions of black Londoners to the city. Everyone who remakes the map knows in their bones that there is power in a name.

So many different maps, signposting so much brilliant work. Yet today’s official tube map has only three stops named after women. Seven Sisters station is named after the Hibbert sisters, who lived during the late 19th century and are known for each planting 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 of the London Underground’s station names honour landowners, or members of the monarchy. The average tube traveller might not know that Leicester Square was named after Robert Sidney, the second earl of Leicester, or that Latimer Road station was named after the wealthy merchant Edward Latymer. But each man’s legacy lives on in the naming. So many statues and placenames work to memorialise the power of their day, signalling that the general public should concern themselves with deference towards those who accumulate capital or own land.

The City of Women London map centres different values. This map celebrates women and non-binary people with deep ties to the city. These are people who have achieved extraordinary things in their field, scaled new heights or served as the nucleus of social movements. We’ve tried our hardest to place each woman or non-binary person at a station that has relevance to their lives, whether it be that they lived, grew up, organised or worked in the area.

From left: Noor Inayat Khan (Euston Square), Virginia Woolf (Warren Street), Mishal Husain (Great Portland Street) and Dina Asher-Smith (Willesden Junction). Composite: Guardian Design; CWGC/PA; Alamy; David Vintiner/the Guardian; PA

Some of our stations are named after wealthy people, but they aren’t on the map simply because of what they owned. Some are British, others were born overseas. On this map are people who have stretched the possibilities of what a woman could be. Among them are Claudia Jones, the journalist, black feminist and one of the founders of the Notting Hill carnival, and the fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, whose clothes made an indelible mark on London via the legacy of its punk scene.

Some of our tube stops celebrate collectives, instead of individuals. Their names represent historic sites of women-led protest. We’ve placed two black feminist organisations – Awaz, the UK Asian women’s collective; and Owaad, the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent – at Heathrow Terminals 2 & 3. In 1979, they organised a picket at Heathrow to protest against the British government’s invasive virginity testing of migrant women arriving in the country.

At the opposite end of the map, there was for us no other option for Bow Road than the match girls. Another powerful women’s collective, operating almost 100 years earlier in London’s East End, the 1,400 working-class women and girls working in Bryant & May’s match factory in Bow went on strike, and changed the course of Britain’s labour movement.

Our map also commemorates sites of tragedy. Victoria station is renamed after the transport worker Belly Mujinga, who died of Covid-19 complications during the first UK-wide lockdown.

City of women … Reni Eddo-Lodge with the reimagined tube map. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Guardian

The now closed Holloway women’s prison also takes a space on the map. It’s a place where feminist activists have long been imprisoned for their political action, from suffragists in the early 20th century, to the women of Greenham Common peace camp in the 80s. The feminist direct-action group Sisters Uncut occupied the visitor centre in 2017, writing in the Guardian that: “Prisons are an inhumane response to the social problems faced by vulnerable women.” One of those vulnerable women was Sarah Reed, a young black woman with a history of mental health problems, who in 2016 was found dead in her cell after being denied appropriate medical care. Just four years before, she faced an incident of shocking brutality also at the hands of the state: she had been attacked by a Metropolitan police officer who had accused her of shoplifting. The police officer was later convicted of common assault for the attack. In marking these tragedies, we aim to commemorate people who have been failed by our society, as well as those who have defied the odds.

London has long been a site of protest, common cause, collectivism and collaboration. It’s a city where decadence and extreme poverty live cheek by jowl. It’s a place where women from all over the world have moved in order to unfurl into their truest selves, often in collaboration with one another. This map might not change the world, but I hope it prompts you to take a second glance at places you might once have taken for granted, to imagine the lives lived by the women before you, and to think of the possibilities of what you might create. This map is a counter to any assertion that the city isn’t for us.

• The City of Women London poster by Reni Eddo-Lodge, Rebecca Solnit and Emma Watson is published by Haymarket Books on 8 March 2022; www.cityofwomenlondon.org