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Women and Architecture

March 6, 1891 — Women’s Educational and Industrial Union, Buffalo NY


MESDAMES — Chairman and Ladies of the Educational Committee:  

You have requested me to speak upon “Women in Architecture.” The subject might, from a masculine standpoint, at least, be disposed of with the brevity which characterized the famous chapter upon the “Snakes of Ireland.” In fact, in order to have any topic at all, we must talk of women and architecture, assuming a connection which is hardly safe to assert.

When Cain built Eros, architecture began; but its authentic history dates from the two great river courses of ancient civilization, where Menes laid the foundations for Memphis and the architect King Urukh, fell heir to the throne of Nimrod. Its earliest records are Egyptian hieroglyphics and brick inscription tablets built into the foundations of Ur, the home of Abraham. In the thousands of years since then, what influence women have exerted over this most ancient and most lasting of all the arts, it is now impossible to estimate. The power of the woman of antiquity was seldom that of pure intellect, but of intellect combined with wealth, position and ambition. Given this accidental combination, and some palace, tomb or temple is usually its enduring witness. 

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Queen Hetasu’s obelisk is the highest in all Egypt; of her inscriptions, defaced and often obliterated by her brothers and successors, enough remain to prove that she completed the temple of Amun-ra, begun during the lifetime of her grandmother, the famous Ethiopian Nefruari. This temple is near Thebes and forms the nucleus of the celebrated El Karnak group. A full dozen dynasties earlier, Queen Nitocris built the yet unidentified pyramid “Of the Soul,” believed by some to be identical with the third pyramid of Gizch.

Queen Artemisia built the first mausoleum, and Marc Antony met his death in another erected by his faithless queen. Voyaging up the Nile, you see the well-preserved and unencumbered temple of Athor, the Egyptian Venus, at Denderah. This and one smaller and more picturesque, near Thebes and the famous baths, were also built by Cleopatra. Even Zenobia found time to build a town on the river Euphrates.

From then to now the list might include every historic name, besides all those of the sainted women of Catholic Europe, who built and governed monasteries as well as nunneries, and who founded and endowed charities and schools.

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During the reign of Queen Elizabeth the great architectural activity has given us a delightfully picturesque domestic style, transitional between the latest phase of English Gothic and the earliest of the classic revival.

A still later phase of English architecture is to be seen in the churches of Queen Anne, one of which (St. Dunstan’s in the East) is thought to have been the design of the gifted and short-lived Jane Wren. The “real Queen Anne house” of the speculative builder is a serious practical joke about on a par with those perpetrated in the name of the much maligned Sir Charles Eastlake.

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Architecture is seldom satisfactorily defined, perhaps never briefly and well. It is not construction in any of its various branches, nor is it arrangement of interior nor exterior, nor coloring, nor carving, nor profiling of moldings; neither is it acoustics, nor fenestration, nor sanitation, nor any one of a hundred other things. It is the arranging and adjuncting, harmonizing and contrasting of all these and many other elements into a suitable and satisfactory whole.

When wants were simpler and before construction became a science, when every building was the natural sequence of its predecessors, the architect was often an amateur, frequently of the highest ability. Musicians, poets, painters, sculptors, emperors and kings expanded wealth and talent on towers and domes, bridges and aqueducts that have outlined the memory even of their other achievements. To specify the causes of their success, as contrasted with the many pitiable failures of the modern amateur, would lead too far from our subject and necessitate a lengthy treatise on the antiquity of the model as a means of architectural representation or vehicle of design; its great value in the centuries before linear perspective was understood, and its final almost total disuse upon the adoption of the more intricate varieties of mechanical drawing. In fact, the abandonment of the model may be said to mark the line of separation between the amateur and the professional architect. Its use today would spare the blushing novice mush confusion, particularly in that shibboleth of all amateurs, the staircase.  

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The professions of medicine and law were far advanced before the much needed and highly appreciated woman physician and lawyer appeared. Women have entered the architectural profession at a much earlier stage of its existence even before it has received legislative recognition. They meet no serious opposition from the profession nor the public. Neither are they warmly welcomed. They minister to no special needs of women, and receive no special favors from them.

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The great architectural societies of the country, the American Institute and its state and city Chapters are all open to them upon proof of qualification. Thank, with me, the noble hearted men whose far-seeing polity and kindly nature has laid this stepping-stone.

With few exceptions the educational facilities are the same for men and women. The architectural department of the Columbia College School of Mines is however open to men only, though in the Metropolitan Art Schools women have access to classes, lectures and the Willard collection, considered first in America. Three or four young women have availed themselves of this opportunity, and one, at least, makes practical use of her training. The advantages of a large city with its libraries, museums and opportunities for studying general structural work can hardly be overestimated. 

Among foreign schools that are most affected by Americans is the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. There is a prospect that this school may be open to women before long, and French papers are now canvassing the subject in a manner that would be quite impossible elsewhere.  

In Boston the School of Technology Architectural Course, partially modeled upon the Paris school, offers special advantages to pupils who have received previous office training. Two young ladies have been graduated from four and two years courses respectively, but none are now entered.

Cornell graduated the first university educated young woman in 1880, and since then four have completed the course that four more are now pursuing. Two of the graduates have since died.

Miss Parker, of Philadelphia, has sent me such information and many circulars concerning local art schools, none of which, however, seem to present the requisite facilities for a thorough technical education. The School of Design for Women is noticeable in this connection because it was founded in 1847 by Mrs. Sarah Peter, to whose endeavors the Cincinnati Academy of Fine Arts is also traceable.  

One Philadelphia instructor writes that he is willing to receive women, but has never done so because he has been unable to give them separate lecture rooms, etc., but women cannot pursue architectural studies to advantage in a private apartment. Co-education is a privilege as well as a necessity.

I must not forget to tell you that Philadelphia published what was probably the first architectural book written in this country by a woman. From Mrs. Tuthill in 1848 to Mrs. Van Rensselaer in 1891, is a greater stride than progress usually makes in one half-century.

The Illinois University at Champaign, has graduated one woman who is a practicing architect and civil engineer in the far West; another will complete the course this year. Professor Ricker says that in architectural history women are his brightest pupils, but he finds the majority deficient in liking for the higher mathematics. Another instructor writes that a woman pupil submitted the boldest design of the year, while the most effeminate was the work of a man.  

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The total number of women graduates from the various schools of the country can hardly exceed a dozen, and most of these seem to have renounced ambition with the attainment of a degree, but there are among them a few brilliant and energetic women for whom the future holds great possibilities.

There are also a few women drafting in various offices through the country, and the only respect in which they fall below their brothers is in disinclination to familiarize themselves with the practical questions of actual construction. They shirk the brick-and-mortar-rubber-boot-and-ladder-climbing period of investigative education, and as a consequence remain at the tracing stage of draftsmanship. There are hardly more successful women draftsmen that women graduates, but the next decade will doubtless give us a few thoroughly efficient architects from their number.  

So much for the past and the present. If in what I say of the future your personal prejudices are offended, pray remember that you have bound me by no previous confession of faith. 

The objects of the business woman are quite distinct from those of the professional agitator. Her aims are conservative rather than aggressive; her strength lies in adaptability, no in reform, and her desire is to conciliate rather than to antagonize.

The future of woman in the architectural profession is what she herself sees fit to make it. It is often proposed that she become exclusively a dwelling house architect. Pity her, and withdraw the suggestion. A specialist should become so from intrinsic fitness, not from extrinsic influence. Furthermore, the dwelling is the most pottering and worst-paid work an architect ever does. He always dreads it, not, as someone may have told you, because he must usually deal with a woman, but because he must strive to gratify the conflicting desires of an entire household, who dig up every hatchet for his benefit and hold daily powwows in his anteroom, and because he knows he loses money nearly every time. Dwelling house architecture, as a special branch for women, should be, at the present rate of remuneration, quite out of the question.

This brings us to another all-important point. The open sesame to the favor of our compeers and the respect of the public is “Equal remuneration for Equal Service,” and a strict observance of all the honorable traditions of our profession and its amenities of practice.

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[In response to questions concerning the Women’s Fair Building Mrs. Bethune said]

Such a building is talked of, but the idea of a separate Women’s Board Exhibit, etc., expresses a sense of inferiority that business women are far from feeling. The board desires a woman architect, and the chief of construction has issued a circular inviting competition, notwithstanding the fact that competition is an evil against which the entire profession has striven for years, and has now nearly vanquished; it is unfortunate that it should be revived in its most objectionable form on this occasion, by women, and for women.

The building will cost about $200,000, and the prize offered to the successful competitor is $1,000. This is all she is to receive. That is, she renders “personal artistic service,” and also prepares her competitive drawings, all for one-tenth of the regular rate for full professional service. The extremely equitable arrangement made with the appointed architects for the ten large buildings is that each renders his personal artistic service for $10,000, all his drawings to be made at the expense of the commission. The sum total to be expended for the ten principal buildings is in the neighborhood of $6,000,000, making an average of $600,000 each. Thus each architect receives about one-third his regular full commission, for which he renders about one-third his full professional service.  

The proportion of remuneration to the architect of the Women’s Building is about three-tenths of the average rate paid the already appointed architects for nearly similar service. It is an unfortunate precedent to establish just now, and it may take years to live down its effects.



Source: The Inland Architect and News Record, Vol. XVII, No. 2, March 1891, pp. 20-21.