"Women Who Build": Julia Morgan & Women's Institutions

By McNeill, Karen | California History, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

"Women Who Build": Julia Morgan & Women's Institutions


McNeill, Karen, California History


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In 1922, Elsa Black, president of the Woman's Athletic Club of San Francisco, declared that her club's building stood as a testament to the "courage, valor, determination, business ability, integrity, optimism ... romance ... [and] feminine foresight" of "women who build." (1) Since the late nineteenth century, California women had been shaping the built environment and using it as a path to power. (2) This network of generally affluent white women was instrumental in creating urban parks, schools, hospitals, orphanages, and charitable organizations that particularly targeted underprivileged women and children.

The same women also founded exclusive social and cultural clubs that provided extradomestic opportunities for women. As with similar organizations throughout the country, these institutions served as sites of female empowerment and gender consciousness; as places where class, ethnic, and racial conflicts played out; or as mechanisms through which some women generated power in numbers and, consequently, acquired an influential voice in City Hall or the Chamber of Commerce. All of these institutions allowed women to reimagine their place in the urban landscape and forge public roles in society.

For the most part, women built this nineteenth-century landscape incrementally; they bought property with preexisting structures--often domestic buildings of various sizes--then adapted the structures to new uses. By the turn of the century, many of these accommodations proved too small and inadequate for their intended purposes. Frequently, their quarters were relocated or expanded, either through additions or by occupying multiple buildings, often creating an inefficient, decentralized network. The transitory nature of this situation lent an air of impermanence, however highly respected the institution might be. As the Progressive Era dawned, interest in centralized organization, efficiency, urban planning, and architecture took hold in the state and around the country. Women increasingly looked to modernize and expand their buildings and claim a permanent presence in the landscape. They engaged in both relatively large- and small-scale architectural developments. They became "women who build." (3)

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Between 1900 and 1930, many women's organizations in California and elsewhere created new buildings to serve their causes. This relatively brief foray into a traditionally masculine activity addressed several goals of the women's movement--broadly defined as organized efforts to redefine the boundaries of feminine propriety and women's rights; raise awareness for concerns that particularly affected women; assert women's influence across a wide spectrum of social, political, economic, cultural, and intellectual issues; and achieve a greater level of independence from and equality with men. Suffrage was the most popular cause that women espoused, but they also promoted public education for children, higher education for women, job training and access, and addressed such issues as child welfare and juvenile delinquency, health and sanitation, environmentalism, public space and urban development, and labor reform.

Elite white women dominate this particular story of the California women's movement. By and large, they did not question the class and racial hierarchy in California or the nation, but as their buildings reveal, shifting relations of power allowed some ethnic minorities to assert their own goals, values, and cultural identities by the late 1920s. The long building campaigns (fundraising drives) and high level of publicity that these projects necessitated accelerated the ability of women's organizations to redefine their contributions to society beyond the maternalist rhetoric that dominated this era. In form and style, the buildings reinforced these modern notions of womanhood and subtly critiqued dominant gender expectations. …

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