SAH News

Despina Stratigakos: Building on the Past: A History of Women in Architecture

by SAH News | Apr 28, 2014

The Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation was contacted earlier this year by The National Women’s History Museum to contribute a feature story on the history of women in architecture in the United States. Below is the story, a primer in many ways, written by BWAF Trustee, Despina Stratigakos, Associate Professor, State University of New York at Buffalo Department of Architecture.

Women’s History Museum. Download the NWHM Spring 2014 Newsletter .pdf

By Despina Stratigakos, Ph.D., SAH Member

In May 2011, Architect Barbie made her debut at the American Institute of Architects (AIA) National Convention in New Orleans. The more than twelve thousand AIA members in attendance, an overwhelmingly male crowd (only 16 percent of AIA members are women), must have been surprised to encounter the pink-and-white Mattel booth in the vast exposition hall, which was occupied primarily by companies selling new building materials and technologies. The Mattel booth featured Architect Barbie and her Malibu Dream-house as well as a lively workshop area that filled each day with children who came to learn about the history of women in architecture, meet female practitioners, and try their hand at designing a floor plan for their own dream home. Four hundred girls were exposed to architectural practice that week, and many expressed excitement at the idea that they might grow up to be builders. The homes they envisioned testified to their awareness of their spatial needs and a desire to shape their own environments. One little girl designed a home with a special room for monsters, acknowledging their existence while getting them out from under her bed.

As a profession, architecture does not have a history of welcoming women and continues to struggle with their integration. Although women account for half of American architecture graduates, they represent only 20 percent of licensed practitioners and even fewer partners of architectural firms. The reasons more women than men leave architecture are poorly understood, but the traditionally macho culture of the profession, which idealizes starchitects and dismisses so-called feminine values, such as collaboration, has certainly played a role. So, too, has women architects’ invisibility in popular culture and history books, although they have practiced in the United States for more than one hundred and thirty years. For young women seeking to enter architectural practice, knowing the history of female pioneers offers an anchoring sense of roots.

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