The Alliance of Women in Architecture

Andrea J. Merrett

In early 1971, New York architect Regi Goldberg (later Weile) initiated the Women’s Architectural Review Movement (WARM) with an invitation to women architects to participate in an exhibition. Goldberg’s main goal was not simply to increase the number of women in the profession; she implied that basic human respect was necessary to nurture the talent of young practitioners, who could not thrive through “sheer determination and chance” alone.

WARM itself never took off; however, Goldberg’s persistence led to the founding of the Alliance of Women in Architecture (AWA) in 1972. By the fall of 1971, Marjorie Hoog had joined Ulrich Franzen’s office, where Goldberg worked. From the responses Goldberg received to her first letter, she selected eight other women: Hoog; Ellen Perry Berkeley an architectural journalist; Judith Edelman, a practicing architect and the first woman elected to New York City’s American Institute of Architects (AIA) Executive Committee; Mimi Lobell; architect Phyllis Birkby, an architectural designer and educator; Sharon Grau and Susanne Strohbach, who both worked for Marcel Breuer; and Patricia Luciana, executive director of the Architectural League of New York. They held an open meeting in May 1972 at the League. According to Goldberg, the excitement of the first meeting was palpable:

No one was speaking. It was very quiet in the room. I asked each of them to turn to the right or left and introduce themselves to the Architect sitting next to them. We could not quiet the room for about 20 minutes. It was amazing . . . my heart swelled and I knew we had broken a barrier . . .  because we hadn’t been allowed to talk to each other freely, it had always been discouraged.

After the isolation of being the only woman, or one of only a handful, in school and in offices, the forum of an all-women meeting came as a huge relief. The leadership planned a second meeting just three weeks later, on May 24th.

In the early days of the AWA, the enthusiastic members quickly organized numerous activities, including creating a newsletter, sending representatives to the Union Internationale des Femmes Architectes’s 1972 conference in Budapest, and organizing discussions and talks. By June 1972, a steering committee (soon renamed the coordination committee) started meeting, and the first newsletter went out. The discrimination workshop launched the salary survey in August. The first major event the coordinating committee organized was a series of discussions and talks in December of 1972, which included a talk by Kay Standley and Bradley Soule on their studies of women in the professions. The discrimination workshop met frequently in the first year, and added a licensing workshop early in 1973, to support women taking their registration exams. The AWA also created an employment workshop that gathered job postings (published regularly in the newsletters) and helped members find employment. The AWA members were concerned with how the group could serve a wider population. An exhibition committee started meeting in March 1973, and the discrimination workshop worked with New York State Association of Architects to extend the salary survey and present their findings at the annual convention.

Setting itself apart from the AIA and other established professional associations, the AWA strove for a nonhierarchical structure. At the beginning, there were no titled positions within the steering committee, and the role of chair rotated. Even when the organization introduced titles in 1978, the committee did not change how it functioned. By the publication of the second newsletter, a set of goals had been more clearly defined:

To foster a public interest in and promote educational work in the architectural profession . . .
To advance the welfare of the architectural profession and to promote in all lawful ways the welfare of the members of the profession . . .
To provide a forum for all members to discuss problems of all kinds related to their participation in the architectural profession.

The goals suggested an aspiration to transform the profession, but the main focus of the AWA was on personal and professional development. Although most of the women involved with running the AWA were of the women’s liberation generation, the professional focus of the group aligned it more closely with the older generation of feminists that had started the National Organization for Women and thought the primary goal of feminism was to integrate women into existing public roles. Within the AWA, this more conservative approach ultimately won.

By 1975, the AWA was well established, with between 200 and 300 members. The general meetings were used for presenting AWA projects and discussions from specific workshops to the larger membership; for members to present their work; and for panels, discussions, and talks. Late in 1974, the organization received a New York State Council on the Arts grant, which they used to produce a program aimed at high schools students, titled “Opportunities in Architecture.” In 1977, after generally ignoring national politics and the larger feminist movement, the organization got involved in supporting the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. By the end of the 1980s, the enthusiasm behind the AWA had waned. Although they celebrated the twentieth anniversary in 1992, there is no record of the organization continuing beyond then.

Andrea J. Merrett is a PhD candidate in architecture at Columbia University writing her dissertation on the history of feminism in American architecture. Her research has received support through a Buell Center Oral History Prize, a Schlesinger Library Oral History Grant, and the Milka Bliznakov Prize from the International Archive of Women in Architecture. Recently she has coedited an issue on women and architecture for the journal de-arq: Journal of Architecture (2017), Universidad de Los Andes, and presented her dissertation research nationally and internationally in New York, Stockholm, and London.