Newsletter | Jan/Feb 2017

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Assessing the Archives, Getting the Book Started
by Ingrid Audette

Left: Ingrid & Mui with original paste-up from the 1970's Right: Ingrid examining microfilm of 1973-1987 newsletters at UC Berkeley

Most of the year I live in Vermont as a history student at Bennington College, but my home is in California and for the past two months I have been interning here for the OWA/DP. I've been working on the proposed 50th anniversary book chronicling the history of the organization and the context of feminism and women in architecture.

My job was to get the ball rolling, as it were, by finding out what resources were available. I started by reading through old newsletters and talking to early and current members, all with the goal of compiling records of my findings and suggesting important topics the book could cover.

I am not an architecture student, and some of you may wonder what my business with this project is, but the answer to that is the same as the answer to the question “Who will want to read this book?” I study history, and I’m particularly interested in women’s involvement in it. The OWA does not live in a box and its history is the history of feminism, women, architecture, organizations, and the experiences people have had.

One woman I talked to during my work told me that when she asked her employer about the discrepancy between her salary and that of her male co-workers, his response was, “Well, there are certain inequalities.” Another women told me she went to the construction site of the project she was designing. She had a roll of drawings under her arm. One of the workers approached her, smiling, friendly, and asked, “Are you looking for your father?” “No,” she said, “I’m the architect.”

My mother always wanted to be an architect, but she told me that when she headed to college to study architecture she had no inkling that things would be any different for her because she was a woman. Which, in a way, is logical enough. Why should she have a harder time just because she’s a woman? All the same, I was shocked to hear this.

Several years before this, on the other side of the country, Mui Ho, Wendy Bertrand and Mary Lelayan were meeting for the first time. They conferred over exactly the topic my mother had the luck not to be aware of yet: the lack of women in the architecture field, and the sexism against those who were in it.

Thus began the Organization of Women Architects.

I didn’t have any expectations when I began researching the OWA. What I found was a group of women, across four decades, all very different from one another, but all vibrant and determined to make it happen for women in the architecture profession.

I began my research with what was immediately available to me, physical copies of nearly all of the organization’s newsletters from 1973 to 1987. I studied the newsletters carefully because they tracked exactly what happened in the organization from year to year and gave a vivid impression of the group.

One of my professors often comments on the importance of language to history, and especially the importance of writing things down. After all, if it isn’t written down, how will anyone who comes along later know about it?

At the moment there is little risk of forgetting the OWA’s origins. There are too many written records, and many of the original members are still active and vocal in the organization. However, the records are not particularly accessible, and they are not the whole picture.

OWA+DP Members at January 28th Meeting Photo: Richard Spencer Standing row, left to right: Cameron White, Inge Horton, Christy Coffin, Rachel Slonicki, Mui Ho, Naomi Horowitz Seated row, left to right: Wendy Bertrand, Ingrid Audette, Suzan Swabacker, Darlene Jang, Marda Quon Stothers, Jean Nilsson, Carol Mancke

On January 28th we held an informal gathering to discuss the book and the directions it should take. Many important points were made, and seemingly agreed upon. One was that the book must include context of what was happening with women’s issues and with architecture at the time. It is clearly important that the book include a mixture of stories, both personal and as pertains to the organization itself, as well as a certain amount of concrete facts. The stories of personal experience are, to me, the most interesting. I feel stories are a means to communicate facts in a way that is memorable to a diverse audience.

The most salient takeaway was that OWA really is unique among organizations of its kind, both in the resources it provides and the community it fosters. Furthermore, all the members I heard from are deeply interested in this book and believe in the value of the organization. This book can do something similar to what the OWA does by providing women with the knowledge that they are not alone in the challenges they face.

Even members are not always aware of the full history and importance of the OWA. The horizontal and always shifting format of the steering committee is vital to the collaborative nature of the group but it does not allow for memory. The book will help with this as well.

I hope the different perspective I bring to this project, as a student of creative writing, history, and feminism, will be helpful in the formulation of this book. I am not an architect, but I strongly believe that this is an invaluable organization and that its story and the stories of its members should be recorded and read. I would like to thank all the women who made time to speak with me and allowed me to study their archives, as well as my mentors, Carol and Naomi.

Finally, I encourage you all to go to the History Forum link at and contribute your own stories, suggestions, and ideas, and let us know if you have archives or materials to share.

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