In Harlem, where my family lives, the streets are named after storied icons of its past: Frederick Douglass Boulevard, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, W. E. B. DuBois Avenue. Not a single street is named after a woman. Walking through my neighborhood, I didn’t doubt for a moment that these civil rights legends deserved to have streets named after them. But I also thought, couldn’t they find one woman (or maybe two) who deserved a street named after her too?
People often say that New York is America’s greatest man-made city, and they might mean this literally. The Empire State Building, Central Park, and the Statue of Liberty were all designed and built by men. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 97 percent of the artists in the contemporary section are male (but 83 percent of its nudes are, yup, female). George Washington was inaugurated here. Edgar Allen Poe wrote “The Raven” here. On New York’s streets I often feel like I’m walking in the shadow of greatness—of men.
Growing up, I attended a Quaker school in the city. I remember the time my English teacher stood up and recited Gloria Steinem’s mantra: “The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off.”
When I look around Harlem, I remember that yes, this is where Langston Hughes wrote his finest verses—but it is also where Zora Neale Hurston wrote hers. Ella Fitzgerald took the stage for the very first time here too. Construction of the Brooklyn Bridge may have been started by a man, but it was finished by a woman. After the chief engineer fell ill and became permanently bedridden, his wife Emily Roebling led the project through to its completion. She became the first person ever to cross the Brooklyn Bridge.
By the time I left for college, I understood that New York's history was also shaped by women. But could I ever be one of them? In a city this big, it's easy to feel small—and I still did.
I found inspiration not only in Harlem’s past, but in its present. I was recently at a local McDonald’s observing a dispute between a female cashier and her male supervisor. He was yelling at her in front of all the rush hour customers, but she wouldn’t back down. He asked her, in coarse and degrading language, why she was causing such a scene to make herself heard. She shot back: “I’m leaning in, motherf**ker!”
The truth set her free. It also pissed her off.
I knew what that felt like. I had been angry not to recognize myself in my own city’s history. So when I returned to New York after college, I worked to help surface the story of the women of Harlem. I convinced tour guides to include more women's landmarks, such as Billie Holiday's first apartment, on their routes. I urged groups of graffiti artists to accept and highlight women street artists, and I was happy to see one young artist adopt the name Sojourner Truth.
My mother and I also successfully petitioned the city to plant more trees to make Harlem a greener place. Harlem has so much history, and those trees make us feel, in our own little way, like our family has a part in its future. New York’s women have never been afraid to lean in. I am proud to join them.
Nola Barackman is a recent graduate of Tufts University and a team member at LeanIn.Org