As a student at Penn, my physical surroundings are constant reminders of the power men have had throughout history. Walking around campus, I am surrounded by buildings named after prestigious individuals, people who excelled in their fields or had the means to donate large sums to the university. Almost all — nearly 90% of Penn’s 189 buildings — are named for men.
Some buildings bear the names of donors, such as the Jon M. Huntsman Hall and the Ronald O. Perelman Center for Political Science and Economics. Other buildings are named for individuals who made significant contributions in their fields, such as the David Rittenhouse Laboratory, named for the famed astronomer and mathematician.
Penn is not alone when it comes to highlighting the names of men more than women. Most major airports in the United States are named after men, streets across the country and the world are largely named after men, and only a small number of statues depicting women exist in the country.
As a woman, seeing mostly men be recognized through these naming processes is troubling. It signals who has power and who doesn’t. This lack of representation makes me feel as if women aren’t powerful enough to be remembered and honored. It’s also frustrating to see women’s achievements and legacies not get the enduring recognition they deserve.
My frustration over Penn’s buildings made me curious about whether or not other colleges and universities in the Philadelphia region have buildings named after women, so I started gathering information. I contacted schools in Philly and nearby — including South Jersey and the suburbs — to find out how many buildings they had, how many were named after women, and whether those buildings were academic or not (the latter includes residence halls and administrative facilities). For schools that didn’t respond, I used campus maps and other official materials to count by hand.
What I found did not surprise me: At each school I checked, fewer than 30% of buildings are named for women.
Even when a woman does have a building in her name, it is often coupled with her husband’s, such as the Connelly Center at Villanova University, named for Josephine and John Connelly.
Out of all the schools I tracked, Bryn Mawr College, a women’s institution, has the highest total percentage of buildings named for a woman, clocking in at around 20%.
No other colleges matched Bryn Mawr. The next tier of schools had between 10% and 20% of buildings commemorating women, and included Swarthmore College, Villanova University, Temple University (Main Campus), Drexel University, La Salle University, and St. Joseph’s University.
Meanwhile, at the lowest end, Penn, West Chester University, Haverford College, and Rowan University have fewer than 10% of its buildings named after women. Rutgers University-Camden and the Community College of Philadelphia — which had the fewest buildings total of the schools I looked at — don’t have any.
Schools varied, too, in the purpose of their buildings named for women. More than half of the women-named buildings at Swarthmore (10 out of 14) and Villanova (8 of 10), for example, were non-academic, mostly residence halls. Penn and Temple, on the other hand, were much more likely to name academic buildings, compared to non-academic ones, after women. Fifteen of Penn’s 18 women-named buildings were academic, and six of Temple’s nine were.
Although representation across all kinds of buildings matters, to me it feels especially important to name academic buildings after women who led in specific fields. Those women serve as evidence to female students that they, too, can academically and professionally excel.
At Swarthmore College, a new STEM building is under construction — and the good news is that it will be named after a woman, Maxine Frank Singer, the American molecular biologist known for her contributions to solving the genetic code and a Swarthmore alum.
The Lang family, who made the financial contribution for the creation of the new hall, got to choose the name, a common practice when a large donation is made to fund construction on campuses. Jane Lang told me by phone that her family chose Singer because “we wanted to recognize not only a Swarthmore alum, and not only a person of distinction in the sciences, but also a woman; there is a scarcity of recognition of women." Lang hopes that what will be remembered is “an enduring building that will stand reflecting [how] a woman from Swarthmore lived a life that reflected intellectual achievement [and] ethical leadership."
The Langs’ decision is a reminder that those whose stories get elevated frame the conversation around what is important and what isn’t.
During 2017 and 2018, Robin Kirk, faculty co-chair of the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute, led an initiative with students from Duke University to re-examine the people and events represented in the school, including buildings, plaques, and statues. She and her students found that many of the school’s physical structures were named after men tied to white supremacy and urged the school to change this. “Naming is so important because it marks place, and it marks achievement," she told me. ”Naming is both recognizing the names that are there, and the history that belongs to them, but then also saying [how] there are names that are not here that we need to lift up, we need to recover from our past.”
Since Kirk and her team’s project was shared with Duke administrators, the university has removed the name of Julian Carr from a building for his ties to white supremacy. A committee is working on proposals for a new name. I hope they choose a woman.
I also hope that other colleges and universities, including Penn, look toward Duke’s model and take steps to prioritize women’s names on buildings until there is true equity.
After all, more women than men are enrolling in post-secondary education each year. While men once went to college in proportions far higher than women — 58 percent to 42 percent as recently as the 1970s — the ratio has now reversed. According to the U.S. Department of Education, in fall 2017, women made up more than 56 percent of students on campuses nationwide.