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New street in Brussels to be named after ‘mother of a social Europe’
A new street being laid in Brussels will be named after Belgian equal rights lawyer Eliane Vogel-Polsky. In the 1970s, Vogel-Polsky won a case that would go down in European history as a turning-point for working women.
Three new streets are being created on the border of Laeken and Jette between Rue Emile Delva and Rue Steys. The other two streets will be called Rue de l’Émancipation and Rue de l’Égalité des Droits.
Vogel-Polsky (pictured), who died in 2015, graduated from ULB with a doctorate in law in 1950, just ahead of both the founding of the European Court of Justice and the signing of the Treaty of Paris. The treaty created the European Coal and Steel Community, the first precursor to the European Union.
She was particularly interested in human rights and the rights of workers. In the 1960s, she conducted several studies into equality in the workplace, finding time and again that women were not considered for many types of jobs and were paid less for the same work.
Defrenne v Sabena
In one report Vogel-Polsky referred to “the complete unwillingness of society to raise girls to have the same professional opportunities as boys”. She searched for the right case to take to the European Court of Justice in defence of women’s rights in the workplace. While she found plenty of options, women were usually too afraid of losing their jobs to file suit against their employers.
Finally in the 1970s, she represented Gabrielle Defrenne in the now-famous Defrenne v Sabena case. Defrenne has been forced to retire from her job as flight attendant at the age of 40, unlike her male counterparts. This was Sabena’s policy at the time, which affected women’s earning potential and pension.
Vogel-Polsky argued that the policy was discriminatory on the grounds of gender under then article 119 of the Treaty of Rome. The court agreed, and set a precedent across the European Economic Community that allowed women to invoke article 119 for any unfair labour treatment. It also created a legal means to ensure that management policies and collective labour agreements treated male and female employees the same.
The Defrenne judgments are considered both judiciously and symbolically as a cornerstone of European law. Vogel-Polsky has since been described as the ‘mother of a social Europe’.
Naming the street after Vogel-Polsky follows a campaign to get more streets in the capital named after women. A survey established that 85% of streets named after people were male. The Capital-Region then asked the public to suggest women to name new streets after.
“We are using this list of suggestions in combination with a group of names included in the Gender Equality Action Plan to bring women into the public space,” said Brussels-City councillor for equal opportunities Khalid Zian (PS).
It was decided in July that the new bridge over the Brussels canal at Tour & Taxis will be named after Brussels gay-rights activist Suzan Daniel, who died in 2007.
Names of public infrastructure “highlight the contributions that people have made to our society,” said Liesbet Stevens of the federal Institute for the Equality of Women and Men. “It is important that our public space better reflects the amazing achievements of women. This initiative contributes to this and recognises the great service paid to us by Eliane Vogel-Polsky.”
Photo: Eliane Vogel-Polsky picture in the mid-1960s
©Private collection, courtesy Brussels-City