Theses Doctoral

The Professional is Political: The Women’s Movement in American Architecture, 1971–1985

Merrett, Andrea Jeanne

This dissertation examines the history of the women’s movement in architecture in the United States. In response to the feminist movement of the 1960s and ’70s, and especially the women’s liberation movement, which began in the late 1960s, women in architecture began to organize and fight for greater status in a profession that had systematically excluded them. Their activism took many different forms—from the establishment of women’s professional groups and the organization of conferences or exhibitions to research on female architects of the past. At the same time, more radical projects such as the Open Design Office, Women’s School of Planning and Architecture (WSPA), and the Women’s Development Corporation tried to re-imagine how architecture could be taught and practiced, which client groups should be served, and the relationship between architects and clients.

Beginning in the early 1970s, women architects formed the Alliance of Women in Architecture (New York City, 1972) and Women Architects, Landscape Architects, and Planners (Boston, 1972), and the Organization of Women Architects (Bay Area, 1973). Through these organizations, feminist architects pressured the American Institute of Architects (AIA) to create a Task Force on Women. Several conferences in 1974 and 1975—most notably “Women in Architecture: A Symposium,” at Washington University in St. Louis in March 1974 and the “West Coast Women’s Design Conference” at the University of Oregon, Eugene, in April 1974—facilitated the development of a national network of feminist architects. The AIA’s Task Force used this network to help conduct a survey, which it finalized as a report to the Institute in 1975. These organizations and conferences also brought together the founders of WSPA, which held its first session in 1975. While women were forming professional organizations and hosting conferences, a few architects began conducting historical research on women and architecture. In 1973, Doris Cole published From Tipi to Skyscraper, the first history of women architects in the US. Four years later, an exhibition entitled Women in American Architecture and accompanying book were launched at the Brooklyn Museum. Both publications challenged architectural historiography by including non-professional women like the domestic reformer Catharine Beecher. Architectural scholars Dolores Hayden and Gwendolyn Wright pushed the boundaries of the discipline even further—Hayden through her work on utopian communities and the “material feminists” of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and Wright through her social history of housing, which placed equal weight on the contributions of women writers and reformers as those of professional architects.

This dissertation demonstrates the successes and shortcomings of the women’s movement in architecture. These include an increase in the number of women studying and practicing architecture, pressure on institutions such as architecture schools and the AIA to take seriously the plight of women in the profession, a reduction in the discrimination and harassment faced by women at schools and work, and the production of a significant body of scholarship on the contributions of women to the built environment. These achievements can be credited to two principal factors. The first is the concerted effort made by feminist architects to work together and bring about these changes. By participating in women’s organizations and at conferences, female architects across the US created a collective identity based on their shared grievances and desire for change. It was their ability to work collectively that forced institutions to respond to their demands. The second factor was the larger social transformation of American society at the time. The successes within architecture were possible only in a period of broader feminist activism that placed external pressure on the profession and reinforced the demands of feminist architects.

Less successful were the more radical efforts, few of which survived architecture’s retreat from social projects towards the formalist and pop culture concerns of postmodernism by the late 1970s, the resurgence of conservative politics, and a backlash against feminism in the 1980s. By the mid-1980s, the energy of the women’s movement in architecture had diminished, but not without leaving behind a rich legacy for future generations of feminist architects.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
McLeod, Mary Caroline
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
January 17, 2020