"Women Who Build": Julia Morgan & Women's Institutions
McNeill, Karen, California History
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)
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. Most still stand, leaving--as this essay suggests--a permanent imprint in the urban landscape thus far undervalued by historians as a rich resource for exploring the complexity and legacy of Progressive Era women's activism.
California women were not alone in their building programs, but the built environment they created stands out for one singular reason: the architect Julia Morgan. Born in San Francisco and raised in Oakland, she was one of the first female graduates in civil engineering from the University of California, Berkeley (1894), the first woman to gain admission to and earn a certificate from the architecture program at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris (1898-1902), the first woman to acquire an architectural license in California (1904), one of few women in the country to head her own architectural practice, and the nation's most prolific woman architect. She was an icon of the New Woman: a highly educated, independent, and single woman successfully pursuing a traditionally masculine career.
It was this reputation that led Marion Ransome, a dean at Mills College, to favor Morgan as architect of the college's alumnae house. "Being a woman's movement," she explained to Aurelia Reinhardt, president of that East Bay women's institution, "Miss Morgan, the best woman architect in the state, should do the work." (4) And while Morgan was not the only woman who designed buildings for women's organizations (nor did only women design such buildings), she likely designed more buildings for women's organizations than any other architect in the country. Her oeuvre thus provides the most expansive body of architecture designed of, by, and for women, resulting in a rich source base for exploring feminism from a spatial perspective. (5)
Julia Morgan was born in San Francisco in 1872 and raised across the bay in Oakland. Her parents, Charles Bill and Eliza Parmelee Morgan, descended from prominent East Coast families. War heroes, wealthy business leaders, and powerful politicians dominated Charles's family tree. Strapped with the burden of this legacy, he arrived in California in 1865 to seek his own fortune in oil speculation. He failed. (6) It was Eliza who secured the family fortune. Her father, a self-made millionaire, provided financial assistance to make sure his daughter lived more than comfortably. Upon his death in 1880, Eliza used her substantial inheritance to build the finest Queen Anne house on one of Oakland's finest streets in one of the city's best neighborhoods. Her mother and her mother's fortune soon moved in with the family. Thus, while Charles remained the public figurehead of patriarchal authority according to Victorian gender codes, his daughter grew up in a household where social status was essential and women provided the means to achieve it. (7)
College introduced Morgan to the California women's network. She enrolled at UC Berkeley in 1890 to study civil engineering and graduated in 1894. (8) She and her cohort established the university's first real women's culture. They founded a chapter of the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), organized several sports teams, and successfully fought for access to the gymnasium. Most importantly for Morgan, they chartered the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority. Characterized by academic excellence and exclusivity, it attracted a group of women who were particularly supportive of intellectual pursuits and who were affluent, well-connected members of society. The sorority hosted social events, including teas with professors' wives and influential society women. Phoebe Apperson Hearst, the wealthy philanthropist and widow of Senator George Hearst who invested heavily in women and higher education at the University of California in particular, may have attended some of these events. She later became one of Morgan's most important clients. The sorority also built a house, where Morgan lived. While most university women resided at home, dividing their attention between familial matters and academic work, Morgan had the opportunity to focus almost exclusively on her academic work. At Berkeley, she gained an education in engineering as well as social networking and institution building. She also broke away from the confines of Victorian domesticity toward a more independent life. (9)
In 1896, Morgan