Architecture has, and still is, a predominantly male-centric field. Though the history of architecture in the western world is vast (dating to approximately 11,600 BCE), women were excluded from the harsh labor of building in the past. But what of the present day?
The first female to break the glass ceiling of architecture did not occur until 1879, when Mary Louisa Page became the first woman in North America to graduate with a degree in architecture. Even up until 1972 many schools did not admit women pursuing degrees in architecture until the passage of Title IX. As of 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 24.2% of architects in the workforce are women and that percentage decreases as you delve into engineering occupations.
March is Women’s History Month, and at IKM we pride ourselves on having an architectural firm that has a 50/50 ratio of male to female employment. To celebrate, we are taking the time to pay homage to ten women that helped pave the way for future female architects.
Mary Louisa Page
This female pioneer began her studies in 1874 and was the only woman in her classes. After graduation she went on to establish Whitman & Page with a fellow classmate of hers, in 1887. Page was many things besides an architect. She was also a teacher, the president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, an instructor at Blue Printing and Abstracting, and was a writer.
Louise Blanchard Bethune
Louise is considered as the first woman to practice in the field of architecture as a professional architect in the United States. She was also the first woman member of the AIA, as well as the first woman to be honored an AIA Fellow. She credited her desire to enter architecture as a result of a “caustic remark.” Louise dedicated five years of her life to work and study before she broke out on her own. In 1855, Louise applied and was readily accepted into the Western Association of Architects, and therefore set a example for other women who hoped to be admitted. Her company history entails Louise Bethune Architect, 1881, Bethune & Bethune, 1881-91 (partnered with her husband), and Bethune, Bethune & Fuchs, 1891-1910.
Lois Lilley Howe
Lois, born in 1864 and later a student at the School of Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, spent four years studying design and drawing before entering a two-year program in architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Lois was the only woman in her class of sixty-six students and helped found the first women’s study group at MIT. Lois was the founding member of Howe, Manning and Almy in 1926, which was Boston’s very first all-female architecture partnership and the second in the United States. Lois was also the first woman elected as a fellow of the AIA in 1931.
Mary Nevan Gannon
Mary Nevan Gannon was born in 1867 and in 1896 when she needed to work, began working as a stenographer and typewriter for a local architect and inspired her to pursue her passion. She enrolled in the first class of the New York School of Applied Design for Women in 1892, which was where she met her future partner Alice J. Hands. The two women founded the very first partnership of women architects in the United States in 1894.
Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter
Born in 1869 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Mary moved a fair amount in her childhood. From a young age, Mary was intrigued with Native American culture and led her down a path of a lifelong passion. She attended the California School of Design and graduated in 1891, and in 1902 began working at the Fred Harvey Company. Colter often incorporated Native American arts into her work, which led to her career as an architect and designer. Her notable designs can be found at the Grand Canyon and include the Grand Fireplace at Hermit’s Rest, the Hopi House, Lookout Studio, and Dessert View Watchtower. Colter also employed indigenous builders and local materials for these projects.
Marion Mahony Griffin
Marion was born in 1871 and later attended MIT where she was the second woman to obtain a degree from the school of architecture. She also took her licensure exam in 1898 and was most likely the first woman to be professionally licensed in the United States. Marion worked with Frank Lloyd Wright and Walter Burley Griffin has been described by Reyner Banham (a twentieth-century renowned architectural critic) as “America’s (and perhaps the world’s) first woman architect who needed no apology in a world of men.” (Banham, pg. 101)
Eleanor was best known for designing the Dover Sun House in 1948, which was one of the first solar-heated houses. Eleanor preferred individual work with an interest in buildings and gardens. In 1917, when she was 28 years old, she enrolled in the Cambridge School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. No matter the project, Eleanor made sure her projects included the range of concerns that come with domestic architecture (for how people live and work)—which included whether houses, studios, piggeries, barns, factories, and gardens.
Anna Wagner Keichline
Anna was the first female registered architect in the state of Pennsylvania in 1920, as well as one of the first women registered in the United States. Anna was born in 1889 in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania and once she entered into the workforce in 1920, she designed more than twenty residential and commercial buildings in Pennsylvania, Washington D.C., and Ohio. Anna also held sixty utility patents and one design patent.
Norma Merrick Sklarek
Norma was a pioneer and has been called the Rosa Parks of architecture, as she was one of the first African American female architects in the United States. Norma was born in 1926 and excelled in math and science, as well as the fine arts during her childhood. She attended the School of Architecture at Columbia and graduated in 1950 with a Bachelor of Architecture degree. Though she was turned away from nineteen firms, who were not hiring African Americans or women, she did not give up and continued to pursue her career. She faced discrimination and was given menial tasks at previous firms until she acquired a position at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. In 1959 she became the first African American woman member of the AIA, in 1962 she became the first African American woman licensed in California, and in 1980 she became the first African American woman to be elected to the College of Fellows of the AIA as well as the first woman in the Los Angeles AIA chapter to be elected.
Georgia Louise Harris Brown
Georgia was the second African American woman architect in the United States to be licensed, and she practiced her career in Chicago and Brazil. Georgia was born in 1918 to a family of mixed ancestry that included former slaves. She enjoyed drawing and painting in her childhood and began her university career in 1936 at Washburn University. In 1938 she enrolled in the School of Engineering and Architecture at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. Georgia moved back to Chicago after she finished school and began working with another African American architect and structural engineer in 1945. In 1949 she worked at Kornacker Associates Inc. where she was the only professional woman, and designed additions to factories, an office and auditorium building, as well as developed calculations for concrete buildings and reinforced steel. In 1953, Brown moved to Brazil in the hopes that its propagated racial democracy would provide better opportunities for her. It was not until 1970 that her diploma was validated, and her work license approved, and she then obtained her Brazilian architecture license. She took on private residential projects that often led to partnerships with designers. Once she solidified herself more, she began developing connections and began working with developers and private investors. She moved back to the United States in 1993 due to health reasons.
These women were pioneers in a predominantly male dominated field and faced discrimination. In spite of that, they persevered and went on to have successful careers and pave the way for future generations of female architects.
Happy Women’s History Month!
Reyner Banham, “Death and Life of the Prairie School,” Architectural Review 154 (August 1973): 101.