Newsletter | Jul/Aug 2003





History of the OWA

by Inge Horten

Presentation on the History of OWA at The Colegio de Arquitectos in Quito, Ecuador

26 June 2003


In the early 1970's, the Women's Movement in the United States gained momentum and helped women to become aware of their unequal status in society and pursue change. Women's studies courses at universities, popular magazines like Gloria Steinem's Ms. for Women, and demonstrations for equal rights all caused women to question the validity of male role models and rules in society and to demand equality.

The unequal situation of women in the male-dominated field of architecture was brought to light in a long and well-researched article by Ellen Perry Berkeley in the respected architectural magazine, Architectural Forum, in September 1972. The article gave many examples of overt and covert discrimination of women in architecture, landscape architecture and planning, most noticeable in lower pay and less opportunity for promotion than for men. Encouraged by the examples of other women's professional organizations around the country, women architects started to get together in support of each other and to overcome their second-class professional status.

In California, some 12 women architects, among them Mui Ho, began informal gatherings in November of 1972 to discuss their experiences at the university and in the workplace. Initially, one-page information sheets, then newsletters, were mailed to potential members announcing the meetings. Among the first speakers was Dolores Hayden, who shared her experience of founding a similar organization for Boston women architects.

Members called the group the Organization of Women Architects and developed an organizational structure, drafted by-laws and became incorporated in 1973. Influenced by the women's movement and its emphasis on equality, they chose a horizontal structure. The traditional hierarchical organizational structure of a president, vice president, secretary and treasurer was replaced with a steering committee working cooperatively and making decisions by consensus. The five areas of shared responsibility were Public Relations, Education, Employment, Finance and Newsletter Production. They were originally assigned to two women each with overlapping two-year terms.

The goal of OWA is to support women as a whole person and not only their careers. We scheduled meetings with presentations about our own work or other women architects' work, job-sharing, flexible work schedules, and childcare. We organized seminars to review our portfolios necessary for job interviews and to improve our public speaking skills. We arranged financial seminars to learn about money management and health seminars to educate ourselves about women's health and occupational hazards. We also organized field trips to recently completed buildings as well as to construction sites. Many members found new and often better jobs through the OWA job referral service.

Our programs vary with the interests and talents of the Steering Committee members. In the mid-eighties, OWA gained much publicity with its House Tours which showcased buildings and landscapes designed by women. The tours were a huge success as people love to visit private homes and gain ideas for their own places.

Another important program is the annual weekend retreat at a lovely ranch in the wine country north of San Francisco. Marda Stothers initiated it in 1988 for women in mid-career but it is now valued by all members as a time for renewing friendships, relaxation, reflection and learning about personal and professional issues.

Besides providing opportunity for lifelong friendships and career support OWA has created many important programs and actions for the benefit of architects and design professionals in general, not only women. For example, one of our outstanding contributions was the development of the Mock Exam intended to prepare and train young architects for the difficult California State licensing exam. The mock exam was so successful that OWA sold it after some years to the American Institute of Architects.

Another significant contribution is providing health insurance to uninsured professionals. In 1976, after lengthy investigations, Janet Crane set up a health plan for OWA members. Making it available to all architects and designers in small offices and unemployed architects is a great service to the community because affordable health insurance is not easily available in the United States.

OWA cooperated with many other organizations and institutions and, for example, was instrumental in establishing a new umbrella organization in California which joined forces with several existing women architects' organizations. The goals of this group, called California Women in Environmental Design, were to lobby governmental agencies and provide designing women with public exposure through outstanding statewide conferences and exhibitions of their work. One of the achievements was the development of a new set of design evaluation criteria based on environmental and human values.

Naturally, over the years, OWA grew into a mature organization with a membership ranging from students to active practitioners and retired professionals. In response to a changing society and architectural practice, OWA varies the services it offers to its members. OWA proudly looks back on its 30 years of successfully promoting and furthering women in architecture and related design professions and confidently looks forward to many more years of active involvement in issues concerning women's advancement in design.






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