Measuring Milestones: Feminist Histories of Architecture in Canada and the United States

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This paper reviews and compares selections from the feminist historiography of architecture in Canada and the United States in order to consider how feminist revisions have affected architectural history in each country. By looking at some Canadian and American exhibitions and publications focusing on women in architecture, I analyze how the notion of gender has been defined in feminist histories and what is at stake in their production. I set out to show that by contributing to the redefinition of what is considered historically significant, revisionist approaches to architectural history extend the relevance of Canadian histories to a wider audience.

In the 1970s, many academics began to define a new way of practising historical study within their disciplines. In art history, for example, T. J. Clark and John Tagg were involved in formulating a program of study on the social history of art,(1) and Linda Nochlin initiated a feminist challenge to the discipline with her groundbreaking essay of 1971, "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?"(2) Drawing on contemporary feminist theory and studies such as Nochlin's, feminist scholars in architectural history began to question and challenge the "master" narrative of their own discipline. For many, this was an attempt not only to add women as new subject matter to historical study, but to critically re-examine what qualified as historically significant. In contrast to the canonical architectural history that focussed on the individual genius of "master" architects and major buildings, feminist histories addressed such issues as women's access to education and professional training, and the effect of women's social roles on their ability to practise in the architectural profession, along with domestic and vernacular architecture, which was more likely to have been designed by women than was "high" architecture. The undertaking to redefine historical study by incorporating gender issues, as well as issues of race and class, has led to a significant revision of the canonical history of architecture.

This paper reviews and compares selections from the feminist historiography of architecture in Canada and the United States in order to consider how feminist revisions have affected architectural history in each country. By looking at some of the Canadian and American exhibitions and publications that have focussed on women in architecture, I analyze how the notion of gender has been defined in feminist histories, who is represented in these histories, and what is at stake in their production. In discussing these issues, I set out to show that by contributing to the redefinition of what is considered historically significant, revisionist approaches to architectural history extend the relevance of Canadian histories to a wider audience.

Histories of Canadian architecture are commonly considered important within the country because they contribute to an understanding of Canada's cultural heritage and national identity. However, outside of the country, Canadian topics hold a somewhat peripheral place within the discipline. Questions regarding the significance of Canadian work in the broader field and the affects of engaging feminist theory within Canadian architectural history arose for me because, as a Canadian studying at an American university, I have encountered different priorities and divergent perspectives between the disciplinary practices in each country. Border crossing, with its regulatory mechanisms, requisite display of documents, and recounting of explanations is not only a physical practice enacted at customs, but it is also an intellectual one. On one hand, presenting papers, publishing articles and negotiating with committee members regarding Canadian topics involves different justifications of their relevance in the United States than they would in Canada. On the other hand, presenting Canadian material in the United States can have considerable effects in terms of the dissemination of national cultural production and in providing an alternative outlook on Canadian subject matter. …