Women architects’ fight

Liberating architecture from “the male effect”


"The WSPA was to offer women a separatist experience and to explore the possibilities for designing and building new environments for an evolving women's culture."

“Oppressed, constrained” - words are barely strong enough to convey how the “only 3.7 percent of American women registered as architects” [1] felt back in 1970.

While the feminist movement was growing stronger, the need for an education which could liberate women’s creativity from the masculine dogma was becoming urgent. And the Women's School of Planning and Architecture aimed at filling exactly that gap by becoming “a supportive and experimental forum”. [2]

Founded in 1974 by Noel Phyllis Birkby, Ellen Perry Berkeley, Bobby Sue Hood, Katrin Adam, Marie Kennedy, Joan Sprague and Leslie Kanes Weisman - some of them being active members of the lesbian and feminist movements - the WSPA was to “offer women a separatist experience” and “to explore the possibilities for designing and building new environments for an evolving women's culture.” [3]

Thought as an itinerant summer school with a supportive and experimental programme, the WSPA promoted active participation. Held in every corner of the United States, from California (1976) to Rhode Island (1978) and Washington DC (1981), it stood as one of the first - unfortunately failed - tentative to eradicate the “male effect” [3] in architecture.

Despite its short existence, the school enabled members/participants - through meetings and seminars - to share skills and ideas, to build strong personal and professional networks and to share experiences with other women of various backgrounds. If - according to Leslie Kanes Weisman - the school failed to provide concrete solutions, on the other hand it surely was a fertile ground for new - socially engaged - projects to take shape.

The nonprofit Women’s Development Corporation for instance was established in 1979 in Providence by Katrin Adam and Joan Sprague - two founding members of the WSPA - together with Susan E. Aitcheson, with the mission to improve women “long-term housing and economic stability” [4]. Thus reiterating the belief of the WSPA that anyone “is equally capable of making a contribution” [3].


Participants of the first session of the Women School of Planning and Architecture forming the Venus symbol for female, at St Joseph’s college, Biddeford, (Maine, USA) in 1975, Courtesy Leslie Kanes Weisman.

[1]http://www.housingeducators.org/Journals/H%20&%20S%20Vol_9_No_2_Participation_of_Women_in_the_Design_Professions.pdf; [2] The Women's School of Planning and Architecture’ advertisement, HERESIE, 11 vol. 3, No. 3, 1981, pp. 22;
[3] Leslie Kanes Weisman, Noel Phyllis Birkby, “The Women's School of Planning and Architecture”, in Learning our Way : Essays on Feminist Education, ed. Charlotte Bunch and Barbara Pollack, Crossing Press, NY, 1983, p. 224-225;
[4] Katrin Adam, Susan E. Aitcheson, Joan Forrester Sprague, “Women's Development Corporation”, HERESIE, 11 vol. 3, No. 3, 1981, pp. 19-20;

Published: 13 Dec. 2016

#Pioneers #Education #WSPA #GenderEquity #WomenInArchitecture

Foroba Yelen

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