The Incredible True Adventures of the Architectress in America

Left: Ms. Magazine, inaugural issue, summer 1972. Right: Faculty and students of the Women’s School of Architecture and Planning Summer Program, 1975. [Images courtesy of Gabrielle Esperdy]

Forty years ago this summer, Ms. made its debut as a monthly magazine for feminists, appealing to “an audience of the converted, or at least the willing prospects.” 1 Issue #1 hit the newsstands in July 1972 with headlines that trumpeted the editorial agenda: Gloria Steinem, Simone de Beauvoir, paid housework, body hair. On the cover was a full-color illustration promoting Wonder Woman for President, inked by legendary DC Comic artist Murphy Anderson, depicting the superheroine as larger than life, in red, white and blue with her golden tiara and magic lasso, towering above a tidy Main Street. Inside the issue, the National Organization for Women, in its first public service advertisement, provided a whammy of a tagline: “Womanpower. It’s much too good to waste.” With sly humor, the ad argued that women in the workplace should be judged by their qualifications, not their appearances. “In a world where women are doctors, lawyers, judges, brokers, economists, scientists, political candidates, professors, and company presidents, any other viewpoint is ridiculous.” 2

You have undoubtedly noted that architects are missing from that long list, but there were plenty of women in the profession in 1972. In fact, at that very moment, many of them were brandishing sufficient womanpower to make a feminist superheroine proud. Women were creating feminist spatial practices and redefining architecture itself; women were bringing feminist voices to existing systems and institutions and challenging the architectural establishment; women were forming new feminist alliances and addressing their own professional needs. The 40th anniversary of Ms. Magazine is the perfect occasion to revisit their amazing adventures fighting for gender equality in American architecture.

Ms. Magazine, NOW public service announcement, July 1972. [Image courtesy of Gabrielle Esperdy]

Mid-century Prelude

By 1951 Joseph Hudnut had been around long enough to know a thing or two about women — at least as students of architecture. He’d been dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design since 1936 and had spent the decade before that at Columbia, which had been accepting women into the architecture program since 1910. There were women architecture students at Harvard, too, though the school didn’t allow them to matriculate until 1942 — and then largely as a pragmatic response to declining male enrollment during the war. Anne Griswold Tyng was among the first to graduate, receiving her Masters in 1944. Even earlier, though, Hudnut would have encountered women studying architecture around Harvard, at Henry Atherton Frost’s Cambridge School, officially an academic unit of Smith College, but staffed with members of Hudnut’s own faculty. 3 In either case, the class roster was impressive, and some stayed in Cambridge as practitioners after receiving their degrees, e.g., Eleanor Raymond, a pioneer of solar house design; Sarah Pillsbury Harkness and Jean Bodman Fletcher, founding partners (with Walter Gropius, et al.) of The Architects Collaborative.

So by the early ’50s Dean Hudnut was well positioned, he believed, to comment on the suitability to practice architecture of what he described as that “uncertain, coy and useful branch of the human race,” a.k.a., women. He was also well positioned, as a leading educator, to have his words on the subject taken seriously. By his own admission it was a “chivalrous impulse” that moved him to write in defense of women as designers in the pages of the Journal of the American Institute of Architects. His self-stated goal was to refute the professional prejudices women confronted at mid-century even, as Hudnut put it, “in the midst of our present rage for social equality and justice.” Today this seems an over-optimistic (to say the least) view of the early postwar period, but it seems that the nascent civil rights movement and “fair deal” ideology of the waning years of the Truman administration prompted Hudnut to give architecture’s woman question some serious thought and to publish a two-part article titled “The Architectress.” 4

In that distant and more genteel era, when women wore gloves and men wore hats, was architectress as cringe inducing as it is today? Probably not, though it is worth mentioning that the next most recent usage quoted in the OED is from 1860 (the one before that, referring to mother nature as “the first architectress,” dates back to 1651). To give Hudnut the benefit of the doubt, architectress was probably a convenience, less cumbersome than “woman-architect” or “lady architect” and little different from actress or waitress even if, to a contemporary ear, it sounds as off-key as sculptress or adultress. Of course, Hudnut doesn’t mention any of these occupations in “The Architectress.” Instead, he compares the difficulties women faced in architecture to their relatively greater success in medicine, politics and bus driving. If women had made headway behind the wheel because of a shortage of male drivers during the war (this goes unstated; it must have been considered self-evident), they had made strides in other fields for more nuanced reasons; and Hudnut’s deft explanations get to the heart of his arguments about the future of the architectress in America.

Left to right: Joseph Hudnut [From Harvard Magazine]; Sarah Harkness and Jean Fletcher [From TAC]; Anne Tyng [From Anne Griswold Tyng Collection/The Architectural Archives/University of Pennsylvania]

Hudnut attributes the success of women as politicians — this was their second generation in the U.S. Congress — to “our very rhetorical consciousness developed from the Declaration of Independence of woman as a (political) human being.” Even if it tests credulity, Hudnut’s optimistic interpretation of the national character goes down easy. We want to believe in it. His interpretation of the female character is harder to swallow. Women have progressed in medicine because “their very ancient competence as baby-sitter” was easily transferred to the roles of nurse and then doctor. It then followed, in Hudnut’s schema, that women would progress in architecture once comparable innate abilities were generally recognized.

In Hudnut’s opinion, these abilities included natural competence in manipulating human behavior (feminine wiles), a faculty for inductive and empathetic reasoning (women’s intuition), and tact and confidence in matters of qualitative judgment (superior taste), all of which translated seamlessly into the art of client relations that was so critical to success in architecture. Hudnut, who admitted that as a young professor he had been susceptible to “the long eyelashes” of a female student, went so far as to state that he “shouldn’t be surprised if this turned out to be woman’s special and restricted sphere.” But he did identify a predisposition for party planning as another inborn and relevant female skill. This was exemplified by Miss E., who had arrived at Harvard by way of Chicago and Smith and spent four years organizing fêtes charrettes of the highest caliber, arranging for music, decorations, cakes, ice creams, even gin to spike the punch. Seeing Miss E. “at her drafting table on the morning of a fête, sending out her committees in all directions,” no one could doubt “the capacity of a woman to manage the universe.” Though Hudnut gives Miss E. ample credit for her organizational prowess, he remains silent on her skills as a designer.

Elsewhere, however, Hudnut emphasizes that if given the opportunity, “woman will prove the equal of man” in all aspects of the profession: in art, business, and technology, in drafting details and sizing I-beams and engaging “that higher realm of the creative process which we call design.” That women “do not ask for as high a wage as men” was a nice bonus. (Hudnut overlooked the possibility that women might have been paid lower wages, rather than asking for them — something Architectural Record had already documented in 1948. 5) Even the most old-fashioned practitioners — the ones guarding the “masculine cocktail party” of the drafting room against an onslaught of women wearing “close-fitting slacks” and “white sweater[s]” — could see the value of cheap talent. But no matter how low were their salaries, or how late they worked into the night, or how many miscellaneous indignities they suffered, there was still a monumental obstacle confronting women in architecture: marriage and family.

Some women, Hudnut conceded, had used marriage to advantage, forming successful professional partnerships with their husbands. The Fletchers and the Harknesses of TAC are contemporaneous examples that would have been familiar to Hudnut. 6 In “The Architectress” he highlights the case of the talented Miss van M., who married “the most attractive, dumb, and ancestor-endowed man in her class,” and had him drum up business while she stayed at the office doing the design work — in Hudnut’s view, a perfectly sensible arrangement that “joyously defeats the conspiracy of society against the woman-architect.” Other women used marriage to relieve themselves of “budgetary tyrannies,” finding husbands wealthy enough to underwrite their architecture vocations. Hudnut saw no problem with this approach either, even noting that marrying for money was one of the profession’s “most venerable traditions.”

The real problem, in Hudnut’s view, was that “patterns of marriage” did not sit comfortably with “patterns of architecture.” A successful architecture practice required the uninterrupted development of both business and art, making it difficult to accommodate pregnancy, childrearing and “the promotion of husbands.” Women could work as draftsmen and still find time for “housekeeping and maternity,” but this wasn’t the same as being an architect. Still, Hudnut left the door to the design studio slightly ajar: if women devoted themselves to practice before having children, they might reasonably expect to resume when their children were grown. Architecture favored maturity. Thus it might become the “refuge and solace” of women who would otherwise find themselves, at 45, with “nothing to put into their lives but bridge, cocktail parties, and Florida.”

It’s not clear what impact — if any — Hudnut’s observations had in the early ’50s. 7 Ellen Perry Berkeley has asserted, not happily, that the term architectress was in brief usage post-Hudnut; but his articles prompted no letters to the editor or follow-up reports. 8 In fact, no one bothered to comment on them in print for another 25 years, and by then times had changed. Hudnut assumed that most of his readers were architects and, by extension, men, and it’s easy to imagine them smirking knowingly at his chummy, old-boy tone. Even when Hudnut is supposedly exposing the foibles of the male establishment, and its absurd assumptions about women in the drafting studio, it’s hard to tease out the satirical from the serious. In 1980, the editors of New Space for Women were clearly not smiling when they declared the articles “loathsome and patronizing.” 9

Another three decades on, “The Architectress” fails to incite such indignation, probably because today the article seems so hopelessly out of date. The sexism is appalling, the peddling of negative social stereotypes contemptible; but if Hudnut was a progressive architectural educator, he was also a privileged, white, heterosexual man, circa the mid-20th century. This isn’t an acceptable excuse — Hudnut was just the messenger anyway (and he was supportive of women in practice) — but it does contextualize the casual misogyny of “The Architectress” and make it more comprehensible from our safe distance in the early 21st century.

There is danger in that distance. Gloria Steinem calls it “the Mad Men effect.” 10 It’s that convenient haze of nostalgia that allows us to look upon — and even enjoy — shocking situations in the recent past because we are so convinced that such situations would be impossible in our more enlightened present. Thus is sexism in the architecture profession in the middle of the last century rendered safe for consumption at the beginning of this century, now that women have designed important buildings, won Pritzkers, made partner, become deans, gotten tenure and, in the United States, represent approximately 20 percent of practicing architects. No one would question women’s considerable advances in the six decades since “The Architectress.” But those advances didn’t happen overnight and they didn’t happen without effort, organizing and activism. They didn’t happen without feminist architects in the 70s “doing it for themselves.”

Life Magazine: Special Report on Remarkable American Women, 1976. [Image courtesy of Gabrielle Esperdy]  Julia Morgan, right, was the sole architect to appear in the issue. [Image via Wikipedia]

Consciousness Raising

In the Bicentennial year of 1976, Life devoted a special issue to the achievements of American women since the Centennial. Of the 166 “remarkable American women” profiled in the magazine, there appeared only one architect. It was, of course, Julia Morgan, who was celebrated not as an accomplished designer with a strong “creative impulse” but as one of the “winners in a man’s world” who managed to grab “a share of the power” despite overwhelming social constraints. That architecture was so scantily represented in the issue is not surprising: aside from icons like Morgan, few American women designers had achieved sufficient prominence in the profession — and even fewer had achieved it outside the profession — to merit inclusion alongside such historical and contemporary cultural luminaries as Susan B. Anthony and Gloria Steinem. What is surprising is the degree to which Life’s editors recognized the sexist status quo, observing that “among the professions talked about on these pages, perhaps none even today is a more exclusively male preserve than architecture.” 11 If any of the women paging through that issue of Life were architects, perhaps they smiled in recognition or, more likely, sighed in exasperation at such a truism — especially if they were among those architects who had already been working to end to that exclusivity and dismantle that preserve. And for those women architects and activists, there was, perhaps, no more egregious embodiment of the profession as a male preserve than the American Institute of Architects.

Officially, the AIA had been open to women since 1886, when Louise Blanchard Bethune became its first woman member. Unofficially, women were often deterred from joining local AIA chapters and encouraged to join women’s auxiliaries instead; and it seems that some women didn’t realize that they were even eligible for membership, especially if they weren’t registered. 12 (This isn’t so surprising when we remember that women were denied membership in Alpha Rho Chi, the architecture fraternity founded in 1914.) By the 1970s, only one percent of AIA members were women (250 of 25,000). To be sure, since AIA membership is voluntary and not necessary for registration or practice, women could avoid the organization as they saw fit. But they could hardly ignore the AIA’s influence and importance as the largest architecture organization in the nation, as the profession’s standard-bearer in America, and as a critical resource for advancement. It was for all of these reasons that a group of determined architects in the early 1970s decided the moment had arrived to demand that this oldest of boy’s networks in architecture accommodate the girls as well, not only in name but in fact and in action. By 1973, they were ready to bring their demands to the attention of the full membership of the AIA.

In the spring of that year, the AIA’s Resolutions Committee met to deliberate on which resolutions should be considered at the annual convention in San Francisco in May. Submitted by local chapters, the resolutions covered various issues — from the pressing challenge of energy conservation to the more mundane matter of bidding for government contracts. It was the job of the six-member committee to refer resolutions to the convention with recommendations for approval or disapproval, or without comment. The second resolution under consideration, co-sponsored by local chapters in New York City, Boston, and New Jersey, dealt with the “Status of Women in the Architectural Profession.” One of the resolution’s lead authors was Judith Edelman, a Columbia graduate and a partner in Edelman and Saltzman Architects, known for its award-winning renovation of nine Upper West Side brownstones into the 9G Cooperative Apartments. Edelman was also the first woman elected to the executive committee of AIA New York, and although “distressed to find the AIA such an exclusive gentleman’s club,” she believed that to avoid the Institute would be to avoid full participation in the profession. If women hoped “to make their presence felt,” it was essential, Edelman felt, that they be active in the AIA. The purpose of the resolution on the status of women was to encourage that activity. 13 The preamble put it bluntly: “In society at large we are in the midst of a struggle for women’s rights brought into sharp focus by the current feminist movement. AIA and the architectural profession have not responded to this climate of change.” 14

Members of the Organization of Women in Architecture, 1973. [Image courtesy of Gabrielle Esperdy]

By the early ’70s, the results of this climate of change were substantive across the nation: Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act guaranteed equal employment opportunities for women; Lyndon Johnson’s 1967 Executive Order 11375 included women in affirmative action; Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments Act ended gender discrimination at colleges and universities and that same year Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment. 15 Clearly it was not unreasonable for American women (or at least those white, middle-class American women most active in the feminist movement) to be optimistic — even to feel an unparalleled sense of forward momentum. Nor was it unreasonable for American women architects — in those days less than four percent of all practitioners — to desire and demand that the profession acknowledge the progress then sweeping across America, not only in federal legislation but in grass-roots organizing as well.

The early ’70s indeed saw a wave of such grass-roots activism as women architects, frustrated by the apparent unresponsiveness of the professional establishment, followed the lead of the rising feminist movement and organized independent groups to further their goals — notably the demand for professional equity and equality. Especially in major urban areas, both coastal and mid-western, where the majority of women practitioners were concentrated, they allied to create professional communities that would define their identities as architects by validating their experience as women. But while these groups operated outside the establishment, they were still, to borrow the term sociologist Maren Lockwood Carden used in a 1975 Ford Foundation Report, “establishment-related,” because they were dedicated to transforming the architecture profession rather than proposing radical alternatives to architectural practice. 16 For many women in the early ’70s, activism was an inside/outside proposition: they would work to effect change within the AIA itself even as they devoted their energies to independent feminist architectural organizations.

In Los Angeles, the feminist ferment reinvigorated the last surviving chapter of the national architectural sorority founded in 1915; it reconstituted itself as the deliberately inclusive Association for Women in Architecture (AWA-LA), expanded its program of scholarships and exhibitions, and conducted an employment survey of L.A. firms. 17 On the opposite coast, one of the earliest of the newly formed groups was Women Architects, Landscape Architects, and Planners, or WALAP, organized in November 1971 by Dolores Hayden, then still a student at the Harvard GSD (and now a professor at Yale). By the time of its first open meeting in spring 1972, WALAP was agitating to make the design professions more responsive to the realities of women’s lives, e.g., advocating for flexible work schedules and for registration credit for part-time practice. The group’s work enjoyed national exposure when Architectural Forum published an article written collectively by WALAP members in September 1972. 18

WALAP’s article appeared along with a groundbreaking account of gender discrimination in the profession written by Ellen Perry Berkeley. “Women in Architecture” may not have been the first article in the American architecture press to address the topic but, pace Hudnut, it was certainly the most comprehensive to date and was notable for its refreshing frankness, lack of condescension, and focus on new activist groups. 19 Then a senior editor at Forum, Berkeley was also a founding member (along with Judith Edelman) of New York City’s Alliance of Women in Architecture (AWA), which had been running workshops on education, career counseling and discrimination since the summer of ‘72. Berkeley did not pull punches as she examined, both anecdotally and with the scant statistics available, the dismal situation of women in the profession. She was especially hard-hitting in her assessment of the AIA, which she criticized not simply for failing to grapple with discrimination but also for denying that discrimination even existed in the field. Not only did Berkeley quote AIA leaders making uninformed statements (“I’m not aware of our schools discouraging women,” said one official; “There’s no discrimination at all,” said another); she also seemed to relish the chance to skewer them in the process. Berkeley concluded that this kind of disingenuous denial couldn’t possibly last; she expressed hope that women practitioners’ demands were likely to be heard at the upcoming convention in San Francisco — the theme of which was “the challenge of change and growth” 20 — and that the Institute was “at least peripherally aware of the new women’s movement in architecture.” 21

New York State Association of Architects Convention, Women in the Profession seminar, 1973. From Empire State Architect, December 1973. [Image courtesy of Gabrielle Esperdy]

“Women in Architecture” gave the nascent movement real momentum. In fact, the Organization of Women Architects, founded in the Bay Area in the fall of 1972 and still in existence today, credited Berkeley’s impassioned piece as its early inspiration. 22 Notably, when the OWA formalized its organizational structure, it rejected the top-down hierarchy exemplified by the AIA; instead of a president/vice president model, it adopted a horizontal, steering-committee structure that emphasized cooperation and consensus-building. OWA members shared experiences, both professional and personal, and brainstormed about how to balance the demands of their careers as architects and their lives as women. The organization offered intensive support, helping members to get licensed (even providing personal coaching for registration exams), to find jobs, and to increase their visibility both within the field and among the public. More significantly, the OWA decided to collect concrete information about Bay Area women in architecture and allied design fields and to establish a resource “data bank”; it then intended to use this information to encourage local, male-dominated firms to hire women. 23

Simple contact with other women practitioners was crucial as well: Lucia Bogatay, a San Francisco architect who joined in 1973, underscored the sense of professional isolation that drove the group to organize when she recalled that the OWA helped her “stop feeling like a freak” for being an architect. 24 Even an architect as successful as Natalie de Blois, who claimed to have never felt overt sexism during her long career as a senior designer with SOM, recalled the satisfaction of “getting together with like[-minded] women, and supporting them in whatever way we could” through Chicago Women in Architecture — another group founded in the early ’70s and still around today. 25

To the Convention and Beyond

The OWA was never shy about its consciousness-raising agenda, nor about its intention to lobby forcefully when tens of thousands of AIA members gathered in its hometown for the ’73 convention, only months after the group first met. To that end, the OWA secured a booth in the exhibitor’s hall to display an eight-foot-high photomural depicting what the San Francisco Chronicle described as “fifty smiling women architects.” Likely the first instance of a women’s organization participating directly in an AIA convention, the booth was intended, as the OWA put it, “to show this predominantly male organization how many women there are, a way of having us all there, more or less in the flesh.” 26 Meanwhile, the AIA’s Resolutions Committee — chaired by Richard F. Hansen of Iowa — was also preparing for the convention; it was debating whether to include “the Status of Women in the Architectural Profession” on the official agenda. The resolution requested that the AIA address four urgent problems, three external and one internal: 1) under-representation in a profession which exemplified “an extreme in male domination”; 2) inequality in opportunity caused by discriminatory hiring policies and the persistence of gender stereotypes throughout the building industry; 3) inequality in pay; and 4) discrimination by omission, evident in the AIA’s own ranks, which counted few women as officers, directors and chairpersons, or even as members of committees and award juries. (Does it go without saying that the committee considering a resolution on the status of women was comprised entirely of men?) 27

At the business meeting of the convention, on May 9th, committee chair Hansen read the resolution “on the status of women in the architectural profession” and moved that it be approved. But somewhere between the initial distribution of the committee’s report and the start of the meeting, the wording of the resolution had changed, subtly but significantly. Somehow all references to the AIA’s previous lack of action or culpability — the statement that the “AIA and the architectural profession have not responded to [the prevailing] climate of change,” for instance — were removed from the preamble. What remained was a more generalized call to include women in the Institute’s existing efforts to “redress the inequities of racial minorities.” Still, the resolution was not without teeth, explicitly mandating that “the AIA take action to integrate women into all aspects of the profession as full participants,” and that it conduct a study on the issues and report the findings to the board of directors. 28

In acknowledging gender inequality in the profession, these provisions all but guaranteed that the resolution would generate controversy, if not procedural maneuvering, on the convention floor. Preservationist Giorgio Cavaglieri of the co-sponsoring New York chapter seconded the motion to approve the revised resolution, and then Anna Halpin, also of New York and a resolution co-author, stressed the importance of “implementation” and not merely “lip service” in order to make similar future resolutions unnecessary. 29 At which point Rex Allen of San Francisco, AIA fellow and past president, argued that the current resolution wasn’t even necessary because the profession had already started to change — to pass it would simply “accentuate the difference.” Ultimately he did offer grudging support, but only upon learning that one of the Institute’s “lady members” hadn’t been permitted to sign copies of a book she had co-authored because only men were allowed to sign books displayed in the exhibit area. Amid the general laughter that followed this anecdote, Allen proposed an amendment to the resolution: he wanted to eliminate the call to remove sexist language from AIA documents and publications, arguing that it was undignified and would do nothing to “advance the position of women in the profession.” 30 Despite opposition from the resolution’s sponsors, Allen’s amendment passed without further comment.

It seemed the resolution was ready to be put to a vote, but then the AIA treasurer, Elmer Botsai, of Hawaii, took the floor to speak against it, acknowledging that he risked being viewed as a male chauvinist — a comment that apparently provoked more laughter than anger. At first Botsai framed his objections as points of practicality: he argued that federal affirmative action and equal employment laws made it redundant for the AIA to take a position. But when he then claimed that the resolution was not “in the best interest of the AIA,” that it amounted to a “motherhood resolution,” and that it addressed concerns that were neither the “responsibility” nor “fault” of the Institute, his display of male chauvinism unwittingly underscored exactly why the resolution would not be redundant at all, and why it was so important that it be approved. 31

And once the voting finally began, it became apparent that Botsai was hardly alone. After an initial voice vote was declared too close to call, the AIA president, Scott Ferebee of North Carolina, asked for a show of hands; when this too revealed no clear majority, Ferebee asked members to stand and be counted. As this was getting underway, a roll call vote was requested from the floor; when the votes were finally tallied, the resolution had passed, despite what supporters recalled as “stiff opposition.” 32 The AIA had now officially pledged to improve the status of women in architecture.

As it turned out, passing the resolution was the easy part; implementing its goals would prove more difficult, and not because of the recalcitrance of the AIA as an institution but because of the entrenched sexism of the AIA membership as a profession. Still, when the newly created “Women and Minorities” Subcommittee of the Personnel Practices Committee convened in February 1974, four of its eight members — veterans of such alternative organizations as the OWA, the AWA, and the CWA — were determined to make a difference, and they set to work on the mandated study 33 The key component was a survey of practicing architects (1,600 women and 1,100 men), who were asked about their education, work history, income, marital status and professional memberships, as well as their attitudes toward the profession, experiences of discrimination and ideas about equal employment opportunities. The final report, presented first to the AIA board and then to the 1974 convention in Washington, D.C., was unequivocal. 34 As it concluded: “Dramatic evidence is now before us substantiating the allegations of discrimination against women architects.” 35 The statistics were revealing but not unexpected: roughly 99 percent of male respondents were registered compared to 62 percent of women; 67 percent of men were firm principals or partners compared to 29 percent of women; men earned, on average, 40 percent more than women. More remarkable were the women’s comments about their professional anxieties — topics ranged from sexual harassment, to the glass ceiling, to the sense of being unwelcome in the AIA — and about the frustration, disillusionment, anger, regret, paralysis and cynicism that followed so predictably from the experience of discrimination.

This 1974 study became the basis for a more detailed Affirmative Action Plan, which the subcommittee — now elevated to the status of an AIA Task Force — completed in December 1975. This later document, presented to the membership in a special report in January 1976, credited the women’s movement for providing “the impetus for women architects to speak out and … take action to redress the inequities experienced by women in the profession.” 36 It also emphasized that the Institute’s recent progress was due mainly to “achievements at grass roots levels” — that is, the work of local chapters, such as AIA New York’s sponsorship of the 1974 exhibition Women in Architecture (which Ada Louise Huxtable reviewed favorably in The New York Times). 37 The Affirmative Action Plan also noted that local chapters were increasingly partnering with women’s architecture groups. It commended these groups — WALAP, AWA, and OWA among them — for offering alternative communities, and for sponsoring activities such as the Women’s School of Planning and Architecture, which offered its first summer program in Maine in 1975 (and would operate until 1981), and the 1974 West Coast Women’s Design Conference, at the University of Oregon, where Denise Scott Brown gave the talk that would later be published as the influential “Room at the Top: Sexism and the Star System in Architecture.” As a result of these emerging networks and new events, women were no longer forced, as the Affirmative Action Plan put it, “to live in complete professional isolation.”38

Despite this progress, the Task Force made it patently clear that to integrate women fully into architecture there was still much to be done — by the Institute, the schools, the accrediting boards, firm principals, even by women themselves. Women, the Action Plan argued, would need to address “the public image of the architect,” identified as a “problem area” because it was so overwhelmingly identified with men; to change this image, the report argued, women should work to “increase public awareness of the contribution of women architects in the design of the built environment.” Another problem area was “the alienation of women architects from the AIA,” which had not “developed in a vacuum” and would not be “resolved overnight.” Nonetheless, the Task Force was confident that during an initial four-year period (1976 to 1980), affirmative action would yield profound change. The first step was for every AIA chapter to undertake “a candid analysis” of its treatment of women to reveal “covert tool[s]” and “common practices” of discrimination. The Task Force was unflinching about the Institute’s responsibility; unless it acted decisively to integrate women, the historical perception of the American Institute of Architects, as an “exclusive club for white male architects,” would persist as contemporary reality. Failing to act would not harm just the organization; it would “shortchang[e] our whole profession.” 39

In the years following the Affirmative Action Plan, women in American architecture stepped increasingly into the spotlight in a series of groundbreaking exhibitions and publications. Notable early works include Susana Torre’s Women in American Architecture: A Historic and Contemporary Perspective, a 1977 Brooklyn Museum exhibition and book; and, from the same year, “On the Fringe of the Profession: Women in American Architecture,” Gwendolyn Wright’s contribution to Spiro Kostof’s classic study, The Architect: Chapters in the History of the Profession. These projects of feminist scholarship had their own momentum, and the notices they received in the professional and popular press represented precisely the kind of good publicity-cum-affirmative action that the Task Force had embraced. 40

For its part, the AIA continued to promote women’s professional integration in these same years. In 1976, it removed sexist language from its career materials and called on manufacturers to stop using nude and scantily clad models in product literature and advertising; in 1978, it resolved to hold the annual convention only in states that had ratified the Equal Rights Amendment; in 1979, it established a “nationwide network” to foster discussion of women’s issues; and in 1981, it launched a high school outreach program to encourage women and minorities to enter the field. Finally, in 1983, a decade after the passage of the resolution on the status of women, AIA President Robert Broshar declared to the national convention that “women are entering the profession in a significant number.” While he was not yet ready to proclaim an end to the “battle” for inclusion that began in the 1970s, he was confident that “architecture is not the male domain it has been in the past.” 41

One wonders why he was so certain. At that moment, the latest statistics about women in the field would have been gleaned from a 1981 replication of the original 1974 survey, this time conducted by the AIA Journal, and from a 1983 follow-up by the Affirmative Action Committee; and each survey provoked skepticism about the extent of women’s progress. While more women were earning degrees (17 percent for the bachelor’s, 21 percent for the master’s), entering the profession (6.7 percent of the field in 1980), and joining the AIA (5.9 percent of its members), the surveys also found that women continued to lag well behind men in becoming registered (56 percent of women compared with 90 percent of men) and that, more than ever, they were suffering the effects of discrimination in the office and the academy (56 percent at work, 46 percent at school). 42

These two women’s surveys were not connected to the biennial surveys the AIA commenced in 1979 to collect data about the size, staffing, projects, revenue and compensation of member firms. Indeed, it was not until 1991 (coincidently, the year Denise Scott Brown was not awarded the Pritzker Prize along with Robert Venturi) that the AIA finally included gender on its questionnaires. By then it could report that among member firms, where men outnumbered women by a ratio of three to one, women accounted for 8 percent of licensed architects, 25 percent of interns, and 20 percent of technical staffers. They also accounted for a whopping 71 percent of non-technical and administrative employees; in short, not exactly the presence in the profession that Judith Edelman had called for back in the activist ’70s. 43 Nonetheless, later that year, when the AIA membership elected Susan A. Maxman of Philadelphia as its president, a milestone was reached; when Maxman took office in 1992, the first woman president in the Institute’s 134-year history was considered a significant story by no less than  The New York Times.

Top, left to right: Ellen Perry Berkeley. [From Elderberry Press]; Dolores Hayden. [From Serious Ladies Looking Good]; Natalie de Blois. [Courtesy of Gabrielle Esperdy]. Bottom left, Denise Scott Brown. [From The Invisible in Architecture, Roemer van Toorn]; bottom right, Judith Edelman. [From ESKW/A]

Embracing the Architectress

This past spring, two decades after a woman became AIA president, Judith Edelman was asked if she thought the 1973 resolution she had co-authored on the status of women in architecture had been effective. “I didn’t think so, for many years,” she said. “I just don’t know. But I think it got women across the country to know each other and to be involved with each other’s various situations. And it was quite interesting in that respect.” So here we are in 2012, with decades of progress towards women’s full participation in architecture behind us, and a key architect-activist of the ’70s and ’80s seems more interested in the networks and communities that resulted than in their statistical accomplishments. Perhaps this is the best way to assess the legacy of that era. No one would deny that women have advanced considerably, making room for themselves in architecture as designers, educators and advocates. This is evident in the work of individual practitioners, scholars and leaders, and also in ongoing initiatives of the AIA (and related organizations like the AIAS, NCARB, NAAB and ACSA), the Organization of Women Architects and Design Professionals, and, in the past decade, the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation. To borrow (inevitably) the ’70s-era Virginia Slims slogan, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

Just not far enough. Contemporary statistics about women in architecture in the U.S. vary widely. Most generously, it is possible to claim that between 20 and 25 percent of practitioners are women; however, this figures drops when only licensed architects are included: women account for 20 percent of licensed architects at AIA member firms, but only 10 to 15 percent of licensed practitioners in the profession. It is in the schools, both undergraduate and graduate, that women have made the greatest advances. Since the mid-2000s, women have comprised over 40 percent of graduating students in accredited programs. 44 Which means, of course, that there exists a big gap between the number of graduates and the number of professionals. How to fix this? Astonishingly, many of the solutions currently proposed — streamlining the internship and registration process, allowing for more flexible work schedules, counseling women to assume leadership positions at firms and the AIA — are identical to those which activist women architects rallied around four decades ago. 45

How did we get here (again)? I would argue that too often today, despite ongoing efforts to achieve diversity and inclusivity, there is a tendency, especially in the aftermath of ’90s-era identity politics, to efface gender difference and to avoid the F-word, effectively disallowing the conjugation of “woman” + “architect.” 46 But if the current climate of divisive politics and derisive punditry is teaching us anything, it is that gender difference is alive and thriving, as political tool and rhetorical device, and that in architecture, as in the larger culture, we ignore it at our own peril. Perhaps the time has come to build those women’s architectural networks and communities anew. We can’t return to ’70s-style feminism — the influence of critical theory, queer theory, and even post-feminism and post-theory, has been too profound. But we can still learn a thing or two from our sisters back in the day, and their old-school grass-roots techniques are easily transferable to the new media of this century.

So let me conclude with a modest proposal that borrows strategically from the history of ’70s organizing and activism. Let’s mentor a new generation of architects who are as proud to be women as they are proud to be designers. And let’s start by taking back the “architectress,” by infusing that cringe-inducing, condescending, mid-century term of opprobrium with some born-this-way, kick-ass, grrrl-power, retro cool. Imagine Architectress t-shirts and Architectress tattoos, Architectress blogs and Architectress fansites, Architectress flash mobs and Architectress meetups. Imagine Architectress going viral. Imagine Architectress superheroine action figures on the shelf next to Architect Barbie.

About the Series: Women in Architecture

Places is pleased to present an occasional and ongoing series on the longstanding — and newly active — issues of women in architecture.

Author's Note

The Graham Foundation and the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation funded the research for this essay, a version of which was presented at the 2006 Annual Meeting of the Society of Architectural Historians.

  1. Linda Charlton, “Feminists vs. the Media: Signs of Change,” The New York Times, March 14, 1972.   See also “Ms., A Magazine for Feminists,” The New York Times, October 28, 1971.
  2. National Organization for Women, “‘Hire him. He’s got great legs.’ [advertisement],” Ms., July 1972, 46.
  3. On the Cambridge School, see Dorothy May Anderson, “The Cambridge School: An Extraordinary Professional Education,” Architecture: A Place for Women (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1989). On Hudnut’s tenure at Harvard, see Jill Pearlman, Inventing American Modernism: Joseph Hudnut, Walter Gropius, and the Bauhaus Legacy at Harvard (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007).
  4. Joseph Hudnut, “The Architectress,” Journal of the American Institute of Architects (March 1951): 111-16 and (April 1951): 181-88.
  5. See “A Thousand Women in Architecture, Part I,” Architectural Record (March 1948): 105. See also note 7.
  6. Gwendolyn Wright discusses them briefly in “On the Fringe of the Profession: Women in American Architecture,” The Architect: Chapters in the History of the Profession, ed. Spiro Kostof (New York: Oxford, 1986): 292.
  7. Two surveys bracket the decade. In 1948 Architectural Record worked with architecture schools deans and the national sorority Alpha Alpha Gamma, also known as the Association of Women in Architecture, to compile a list of women who had studied architecture in the U.S. and to survey their professional activities. See “A Thousand Women in Architecture, Part I,” 105. This article also included a portfolio of work, as did “A Thousand Women in Architecture, Part II,” which appeared in the June issue. In 1958, Rose Connor, a California practitioner and AIA member, scrutinized records of Architectural Registration Boards in all 50 states and concluded that 320 registered architects were women; this was one percent of all registered architects in the US. See “Women in Architecture Timeline,” Almanac of Architecture and Design, eds. James P. Cramer and Jennifer Evans Yankopolus (Atlanta: Greenway Communications, 2005): 398. Also in 1958, Pietro Belluschi, then dean at MIT, wrote discouragingly about architectural opportunities for women, concluding that only “the exceptional one” would succeed. The New York Life Insurance Company commissioned “Should Your Child be an Architect” as part of a career planning series for parents, publishing it in popular magazines like Life and Look and circulating it as a brochure.
  8. Ellen Perry Berkeley, “Introduction,” Architecture: A Place for Women, 3. Berkeley describes the term as “condescending” and Hudnut’s articles as “savage.” Berkeley’s journalism is discussed below.
  9. Gerda R. Wekerle, Rebecca Peterson, David Morley, eds., New Space for Women (Boulder: Westview Press, 1980): 216. Dolores Hayden and Gwendolyn Wright described him as “smug” in “Architecture and Urban Planning,” Signs 1 (Summer 1976): 923.
  10. See Alex Strachan, “Gloria Steinem: ‘This Generation of Women is More Feminist than We Ever Were,” National Post of Canada, August 19, 2011. See also Meghan Casserly, “The Mad Men Effect: What’s the Deal with Other Era Sexism?” Forbeswoman Blog, Forbes Magazine Online, March 24, 2012,
  11. “Remarkable American Women, 1776-1976,” Life Magazine Special Report (1976): 27.
  12. This history is described in “Task Force on Women in Architecture of the Personnel Practices Committee via the Commission of Professional Practice,” Women in Architecture: Report to the AIA Board of Directors (Washington: American Institute of Architects, 1974): 4, 12.
  13. AIA Resolutions Committee, Report of the AIA Resolutions Committee (Washington: American Institute of Architects, 1973): 3. See AIA Archives, Records of the Resolutions Committee.
  14. The Equal Rights Amendment was passed by both houses of the U.S. Congress in 1972 and endorsed by President Richard Nixon; but it failed to be ratified by the requisite number of states (38) before the mandated deadline of 1982, and as a result did not become an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
  15. Maren Lockwood Carden, Feminism in the Mid-1970s: The Non-Establishment, the Establishment and the Future (New York: Ford Foundation, 1977): 7-8. Carden’s report makes no mention of women’s architecture groups. Radical alternative organizations include several well-documented feminist spatial experiments in and around Los Angeles, such as Womanhouse, organized by artists Miriam Shapiro and Judy Chicago in 1972 as part of the Feminist Art Program at CalArts; the Woman’s Building, founded by Sheila Levrant de Bretteville and Arlene Raven in 1973; and the Women’s Design Program at CalArts that de Bretteville launched in 1971. See Sandra Sider, “WOMANHOUSE: Cradle of Feminist Art,” Art Spaces Archives Project, 2010. On the Woman’s Building, see The Woman’s Building, and also Jori Finkel, “Remembering the Landmark Woman’s Building,” Los Angeles Times, 15 January 2012. See also Patricia A. Morton, “The Social and the Poetic: Feminist Practices in Architecture 1970-2000,” in The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, ed. Amelia Jones (New York & London: Routledge, 2003): 277-282.
  16. On the history of AWA-LA see the group’s website. See also Berkeley, “Women in Architecture,” 49.
  17. WALAP, “The Case for Flexible Work Schedules,” Architectural Forum 137 (September 1972), 53, 66. Contributors are identified in a footnote and included Joan Forrester Sprague and Sarah Harkness, both also active in the AIA.
  18. Berkeley, “Women in Architecture,” 46-53. In addition to WALAP, Berkeley discusses the Women’s Architectural Review Movement (WARM), the Alliance of Women in Architecture (AWA), and Women in Environmental Design (WED), as well as l’Union Internationale des Femmes Architectes (UIFA), an international organization founded in 1964.
  19. See “Address by AIA President S. Scott Ferebee” in 1973 AIA Convention Transcript, n.p. [unpublished typescript, The American Institute of Architects Archives].
  20. Berkeley, “Women in Architecture,” 46, 50.
  21. Inge Horton, “Presentation on the History of OWA at the Colegio de Arquitectos in Quito, Ecuador,” OWA Newsletter, July 2003.
  22. See Joanne Williams, “Constructing an Image,” California Living, August 15, 1976. See also OWA Newsletters, 1972-1976 [International Archive of Women in Architecture, Ms88-080].
  23. Quoted in Ruthe Stein, “Women Architects in the Flesh,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 8, 1978, N19.
  24. Betty J. Blum, interviewer, Oral History of Natalie de Blois, Chicago Architects Oral History Project (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 2004), 108-9
  25. Stein, 19. The AIA provided Booth #815 free of charge to the OWA, though members weren’t sure if this was because the institute realized “it was time to face reality” or simply wanted to “make a good impression.”
  26. On the part of the New York City, Boston and New Jersey sponsoring chapters, the resolution was to some extent an attempt to rectify past failures, notably at the 1972 convention in Houston. There, women’s groups from New York and Boston had submitted (with their chapters’ endorsement) a last-minute proposal for “consideration and action” on women in the profession. The proposal was denied resolution status and not taken to a vote of the full membership precisely because it had not been brought before the committee prior to the convention. And while the fact of the “consideration and action” proposal was noted in the Houston convention transcript, its content was not. Ellen Perry Berkeley concluded that it had been “swept under the rug.” Whether or not this was true, it seems clear that the 1972 proposal became the basis for the 1973 resolution. See Berkeley, “Women in Architecture,” 51. See also 1972 AIA Convention Transcript [unpublished typescript, The American Institute of Architects Archives].
  27. As with the altered wording of the preamble, the language of the final resolution, regarding the mandated study, had also been changed — and weakened — from that of an earlier version. Where the previous version charged a study group with making actual policy proposals to ensure that “the profession and practice are entirely open to women,” in the final document the group was now challenged merely with “considering” the formulation of such policies, e.g., encouraging women to become architects and to become involved in the AIA, eliminating sexist language in AIA documents, and initiating an affirmative action program that included women. See “Resolution No. 2 — Revised Copy,” reprinted in Task Force on Women in Architecture of the Personnel Practices Committee via the Commission of Professional Practice, Women in Architecture: Report to the AIA Board of Directors (Washington American Institute of Architects, 1974), n.p.
  28. 1973 AIA Convention Transcript, 119.
  29. 1973 AIA Convention Transcript, 120-21.
  30. 1973 AIA Convention Transcript, 123.
  31. Quoted in Task Force on Women in Architecture, Status of Women in the Architectural Profession: Task Force Report (Washington: AIA, February 1975), 1. In the final tally, the vote was 996.85 to 627.21. See 1973 AIA Convention Transcript, 154. Since people present at the 1973 vote recall it being very close, it seems obvious that this wide margin was due to a quirk in the roll call voting system by which each member present is permitted to cast an equal portion of the number of votes accredited to his or her chapter. In other words, a very large chapter, like that of New York City, could cast all of its votes as long as at least one member of the chapter was present.
  32. These members included Judith Edelman, founding member of the AWA and co-author of the 1973 resolution, and Natalie de Blois, a founding member of Chicago Women in Architecture, who had just been made an AIA Fellow when she joined the subcommittee, taking the place of Joan Sprague, herself a founder of the Women’s School of Planning and Architecture. The other subcommittee members with a history of activism were Marie Laleyan, a founder of the Organization of Women Architects, and Jean Young, a founder of Seattle’s Sisters for a Human Environment.
  33. At the Washington convention, the subcommittee staffed a booth that became one of the busiest in the so-called “Marketplace of Ideas,” serving as meeting place and drop-in center for AIA members and other attendees interested in, or just curious about, women in architecture. While copies of the report were not available at the booth — it is unclear whether this was due to lack of funding or to the unwillingness of the AIA to release what it regarded as a work in progress — Judith Edelman, Marie Laleyan and others still managed to get its facts and figures into circulation through slide shows, video tape presentations, and one-on-one Q&As. The subcommittee also organized two workshops to explain its findings and future plans, which included, most significantly, using the report as the foundation for a full-fledged affirmative action plan to integrate women into the AIA and the profession as a whole.
  34. Survey results are quoted in Task Force on Women in Architecture, Affirmative Action Plan for the Integration of Women in the Architectural Profession and the American Institute of Architects (Task Force Report Submitted to the Board of Directors, December 1975), 33, 34.
  35. Affirmative Action Plan, 1. See also “Women in Architecture: A Special Report,” MEMO: Newsletter of the AIA, January 1976.
  36. In the review, Huxtable mentions the resolution passed at the 1973 AIA convention as well as the survey conducted by the Women and Minorities Subcommittee. Ada Louise Huxtable, “The Letterhead is Solidly Male,” The New York Times, May 19, 1974.
  37. Affirmative Action Plan, 37. On the Women’s School of Planning and Architecture, see Leslie Kanes Weisman, “A Feminist Experiment: Learning from WSPA, Then and Now,” Architecture: A Place for Women, 125-33. See also Cristina Cerulli and Florian Kossak, “Educator, Activist, Politician: An Interview with Leslie Kanes Weisman,” field: 3 (December 2009), 7-20, especially pages 8-15. Denise Scott Brown’s essay was published in Architecture: A Place for Women, nearly 15 years after she wrote it. The full text is available here.
  38. Affirmative Action Plan, x, 37, 35-36. “Women in Architecture,” 1.
  39. Susan Torre, ed., Women in American Architecture: A Historic and Contemporary Perspective; the exhibition was on display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in March-April 1977. See also Ada Louise Huxtable, “The Last Profession to Be ‘Liberated’ by Women,” The New York Times, March 13, 1977. “The Woman behind the T-Square,” Progressive Architecture 58 (March 1977): 37-57. Gwendolyn Wright, “On the Fringe of the Profession: Women in American Architecture,” The Architect: Chapters in the History of the Profession, ed. Spiro Kostof (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977): 280-308.
  40. On the advertising ban, see Proceedings of the 1976 Convention of the American Institute of Architects, 115-117. On the ERA, see Proceedings of the 1978 Convention of the American Institute of Architects, 254 and 275. On women’s networking, see Proceedings of the 1979 Convention of the American Institute of Architects, 9. On high school outreach, see Proceedings of the 1981 Convention of the American Institute of Architects, 12. Boshar is quoted in Proceedings of the 1983 Convention of the American Institute of Architects, 32-33 [AIA Archives].
  41. Nora Richter Greer, “Women in Architecture: A Progress (?) Report and a Statistical Profile,” AIA Journal 71 (January 1982: 40-41. The results of the 1983 survey are reported in Women in Architecture Committee, Progress Update 1985: The Integration of Women into the Architectural Profession (Report Submitted to the Board of Directors December 1985).
  42. American Institute of Architects, 1991 AIA Firm Survey (Washington, DC: American Institute of Architects, 1991), 1, 55, 57.
  43. Some of the most reliable numbers are now over a decade old. See Kathryn H. Anthony, Designing for Diversity (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2001). For an engaging visualization that attempts to make sense of the contemporary numbers (but is not wholly successful because it mixes U.S. and U.K. data) see Megan Jett, “Infographic: Women in Architecture,” Arch Daily, March 12, 2012. See also Sherry Snipes, “Developing the Pipeline,” AIA Programs & Initiatives. On enrollment statistics see National Architectural Accrediting Board, Annual Reports on Accreditation.
  44. For a summary of contemporary issues, see John Cary, “Architect Barbie Builds a Dream Home, but Her Profession Needs a Makeover,” Christian Science Monitor, August 8, 2011.
  45. See Sherry Ahrentzen, “The Space between the Studs: Feminism and Architecture,” Signs 29 (Autumn 2003): 179-206. Ahrentzen, “The F Word in Architecture: Feminist Analyses in/of/for Architecture,” Reconstructing Architecture: Critical Discourses and Social Practices, eds. Thomas A. Dutton, Lian Hurst Mann (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996): 71-118.
Gabrielle Esperdy, “The Incredible True Adventures of the Architectress in America,” Places Journal, September 2012. Accessed 08 Jun 2023.

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