Yvonne Abraham

Not enough Boston schools are named for women. Here are some suggestions

Kip Tiernan, Rosie’s Place founder, is one woman deserving of honor.
Kip Tiernan, Rosie’s Place founder, is one woman deserving of honor.

How is this possible?

Of 125 Boston public schools, only 10 are named for women.

You read that right. Ten. And guess how many are named after men. Oh, how about 75.


Pathetic! It’s 2018, in one of the most progressive cities in the country. Can’t Boston do better than this?

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Educators Meg Campbell and Mary Smoyer sure want the city to try, starting with the 40 schools that are named for nobody. At a Boston School Committee meeting last week, they gave statements on the sorry state of school nomenclature, and urged the committee to do something about it. They pointed out that, hard as it is to imagine, the city has actually gone backward in recent years, with several schools bearing the names of women — including former slave and poet Phillis Wheatley, and 19th-century journalist and women’s rights activist Margaret Fuller — being remade into new schools with other names.

Campbell cofounded the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail in 1988, and has been working to publicly memorialize more great Boston women in parks and public art — where women are also woefully underrepresented — ever since. The organization hadn’t tallied the names on city schools until last year, and members were astonished by the numbers.

Now, before the dinosaurs among you get all het up and start whining about feminists and quotas and political correctness and is-nothing-sacred-any-more, we’re not talking about just words here. A school’s name, which kids hear every day, really matters. It speaks to whom we acknowledge and admire. Having so few women among them sends a lousy message to students, half of whom are girls, and all of whom live in a world where women do remarkable things.

“If I go into a conference center named for Eleanor Roosevelt, I feel a little boost as I go in,” said Smoyer, a retired teacher who has worked with the Women’s History Trail for decades. “I don’t want to put anyone down, but if it’s named after her husband, it’s not as much of a boost.”


Smoyer has suggested that Boston start setting things right with the Dearborn STEM Academy, in Roxbury, which will soon reopen as a $70 million state-of-the-art facility. That school could be named for Ellen Swallow Richards, a pioneering environmental scientist and the first woman to graduate from MIT, in 1873. Or for Gladys S. Wood, who died last year, and was the first African-American principal of a Boston public school, appointed to head the Dearborn in 1966. Why not return Phillis Wheatley’s name to the Boston Day and Evening Academy, which took over its Roxbury building when the old Wheatley closed in 2004?

There are plenty of other spectacular women to honor: abolitionists Angelina and Sarah Grimke; African-American arts pioneer Elma Lewis; social reformer Dorothea Dix; Ellen Craft, an escaped slave and abolitionist; and Rosie’s Place founder Kip Tiernan. You can doubtless think of many more.

In the Boston system, individual school communities generally decide their own names. But city leaders can set the tone here. School Committee chair Michael Loconto said he and his colleagues were surprised by the dismal numbers Smoyer presented last week.

“We need to address not only gender issues with respect to [school] names, but also race and ethnicity imbalances as well,” he said. Superintendent Tommy Chang says he is up for it, and the mayor is, too: “Mayor Walsh welcomes opportunities for Boston Public Schools to better represent the diversity of the city,” his office said in a statement.

Great! Now, to make it happen: The city should offer support for schools open to exploring possible name changes, and provide grants for new stationery and portraits of new school namesakes.


Many more girls looking at the names on their schools, or the portraits on the walls, should be better able to see themselves, and their possible futures, therein.

And they shouldn’t have to wait.

Correction:An earlier version of this column misstated the year in which Ellen Swallow Richards graduated from MIT.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.