A History of Women at the Yale School of Architecture

A History of Women at the Yale School of Architecture

As part of Yale University’s celebration of 50 Women at Yale 150, which recognizes the 50th anniversary of coeducation in Yale College and the 150th anniversary of women students in the graduate and professional schools, the Yale School of Architecture is embarking on a year-and-a-half project to recognize the many YSOA women alums, faculty members, and community members.

This history of women at the Yale School of Architecture will be added to throughout the celebration of 50 Women at Yale 150 and beyond. To suggest stories or content, email arch.info@yale.edu.

50 Women at Yale 150

Yale Women in Architecture—Article from Constructs, Fall 2012

Women’s issues in the pursuit of an architectural career have come a long way since Yale’s first female graduated from the School of Architecture in 1949. A look, however, at recent numbers and statistics reveals that the architecture profession as a whole is still male-dominated, although women comprise fifty percent of students enrolled in schools of architecture. According to a survey by The Architects Journal, in 2011 women held about twenty-one percent of jobs in architecture offices. As Maya Lin (B.A.’81, M.Arch ’86) notes, “What no one could figure out is how you can have fifty-fifty going into school, but coming out the other end, the men seemed more likely to be the lead designers and the women often ended up in more managerial roles in firms. How can you have so many women being educated at such an advanced level but not have that balance in the professional realm?”

A conference and reunion this fall at Yale will celebrate its women architects and bring them together to discuss, debate, and establish new directions and goals from education to the profession. In honor of the thirtieth anniversary of the Schimberg Award (Sonia Albert, ’50), Anne Schimberg Weisberg and Yale graduates such as Claire Weisz (’89, principal of WXY Architecture), and faculty members, including Peggy Deamer have organized the first Women’s Reunion and Conference at Yale on November 30, and December 1, 2012. Sonia Albert Schimberg’s daughter, Anne Weisberg, stated, “My mother was an adventurer and pioneer who loved her work and worked literally until the day she died. My sister and I created the award as a way to honor her passion and to recognize and encourage the next generation of women in architecture. Gathering alumnae of the school, including many of the Schimberg Award winners, will both highlight their accomplishments—and amplify their impact on the school and beyond.” Wanda Bubriski, founding director of the Beverly Willis Foundation, who will be speaking at the opening session emphasizes, “The act of bringing the women together for the first time is enlightened. It has taken so many years to recognize women, and with the Alumni organization this is part of a larger attempt by Yale to recognize and embrace the contributions of women to the intellectual life of the university and the profession of architecture.”

The fall event has spawned fast-paced research on the history of female students at the School of Architecture. With little historical documentation on the subject in Yale’s Manuscripts and Archives, the November conference provides an opportunity to gather documents and to retrieve her-story at Yale and in the architecture field in general. Thus this article is not comprehensive, but simply a jump start to compiling oral histories of women graduates, along with revealing anecdotes and episodes that will provide us with an expanded knowledge of education and the profession.

Yale began admitting women with the opening of the School of Fine Arts in 1869. In 1879, the law school followed suit and later the schools of medicine, nursing, and divinity. Yale College did not admit women until 1969. Maya Lin points out that her research for the Women’s Table, a circular granite sculpture located on Rose Walk near Sterling Library, engraved with a spiral of figures representing the numbers of women at Yale since its founding in 1701, revealed that “The Law School didn’t want to admit they were taking women, so women used their initials rather than full names. I came across instances of classes before graduate schools that were open to women to sit in and they were referred to as ‘silent listeners.’ The point of the Women’s Table was to make women count. By tracing the number of women enrolled at Yale, you can draw parallels to the emergence of women in society. I had chosen the spiral since there is a beginning to when women were admitted, but of course it goes on to infinity, with the last enrollment number marking the year the piece was dedicated.”

The School of Fine Arts admitted women from the outset, but the Architecture Department was not initiated until 1916, and only opened its doors to women in 1942 during World War II. At that time, there were female enrollment spikes at other Yale departments and at other universities. According to school records, the first female graduate from the School of Architecture was Helene Flamm, in 1948, after whom four women graduated in 1949. Over the next fifteen years, there were still only up to four women in classes of between 25 and 30 students, until eight women graduated in 1966, a class of 60, some in the Planning Department. It was not until 1974, under Herman Spiegel (dean 1972–77), that the number of women started to rise significantly, in part reflecting the first women undergraduates finishing at Yale College, but also because of the nondiscriminatory acceptance regulations of Title IX under the 1972 Education Amendments.

A Woman’s Education

While it was difficult to identify patterns of gender disparity, many women were eager to recall, often with some amusement, their time at Yale. When Sonia Albert Schimberg graduated in 1950, she was one of just a few women in the graduate architecture program, and went on to work for Charles Luckman Architects, now Luckman Partnership, designing hotels, many of them in Caracas. She was transferred to Venezuela, and took her family along. Schimberg was innovative in using art and color in the hotel interiors she designed with the firm. In the early 1970s, she moved to Chicago, remarried, and worked for Loebl, Schlossman & Hackl starting the interiors department there. She designed numerous corporate headquarters, including Motorola, and became a successful and dynamic architect.

Women studying architecture at Yale in the 1950s focused full time on academics, even though their daily life was a bit unconventional and often awkward. Many came with strong art backgrounds and education, but upon arriving at Yale, some had to take extra math and physics. Estelle Margolis (B.Arch ’55 of E.T. Margolis Architectural Design), had worked with artist Ben Shaw at the 1946 CIO political-action committee. When E.V. Meeks (dean 1922–45) invited Shaw to speak at Yale, Shaw asked if Meeks took people who didn’t finish college but were talented. Margolis recalls, “Meeks said ‘Send him to me.’ And Shaw said, ‘It is not a he, it is a she.’ And Meeks considered it further and said, ‘Okay, send her to me.’ And that started my application process on the condition that I took a year of math. I went to an undergraduate math class of about two hundred people. The teacher walked in and pointed to me and said, ‘Stand up, young lady. What are you doing here? No girls in the undergraduate school; get out!’ So we set up a special math class for those who needed it in the architecture school.” But the discrimination and incomprehension of a woman in a man’s world continued during Margolis’s education, as she recalls being called into the office of the university psychologist, who questioned whether she liked men, because he couldn’t understand why she dressed like a man, in blue jeans and a man’s shirt. Her explanation was practical: “Men’s shirts cost ninety cents to wash and iron, and a woman’s blouse $1.50, and I had $7 a week to live on.”

Leona Nalle (’56) and Vica Emery (’55) came to Yale from Brooklyn College and had studied with Ad Reinhart, Milton Brown, and Robert J. Wolf. Josef Albers invited the same artists to Yale’s art school as visiting critics. Florence Damora (’55) and artist Joan Carver (’54) were also students together. Nalle notes, “It was an amazing intellectual time. I was way up in the drafting room in Weir Hall and all the boys were sitting behind me because my last name was Annenberg, so I was in the first row, and then Eugene Nalle (my future husband) sat next to me and that is how I learned to draw. The male students were like brothers; they were coworkers and helpful. In the pinups the jurors didn’t know which were the women’s projects.”

The studies were as difficult and demanding as they are today. Margolis won the award for a hospital design; however, she had to give it up. “It was political; they had to give it to a boy. Girls didn’t win things. Tom Hume got it instead.” They awarded $2,000 for travel to research and design a hospital, but in the end she was okay with it as she could not afford to take the time off from work. “It was a very big woman’s issue in 1955. I knew I was going to work and start my life. I was twenty-eight when I finished, and I wanted to get on with it!”

Many talked of camaraderie, others talked about romance. There was no housing for women and no bathrooms for them at the art school. Women had to walk across Chapel Street to use the bathrooms at the Waldorf Cafeteria. It was the first time many lived on their own, and they shared resources and were thrilled about being at a university. Nalle remembered, “The guys would go hunting for girls at other colleges on the weekend, and I could wander around the Art Gallery when no one was there; it was my fiefdom.”

When Judith Blum Chafee, from Chicago, graduated in 1960, she was the only woman in her class. Tigerman recalls her as a talented designer and that Paul Rudolph (chairman 1958–65) was tough on her but praised her thesis. She later ended up working for Rudolph, Eero Saarinen, Edward Larrabee Barnes, and Walter Gropius’ Architects Collaborative in Cambridge, where architect Sarah Harkness was her mentor. She moved to Tuscon where she designed much praised Modern houses, including the Ramada House and the Rieveschl House, among other renown projects. She also received an American Academy of Rome fellowship, and taught for years at the University of Arizona in Tuscon.

In the early 1960s, the head of admissions was on sabbatical, and, as a result, six women were admitted instead of one or two. M. J. Long (’64, principal of Long and Kentish, and an adjunct professor at Yale) remarked that “it was assumed that if you were serious as an undergraduate at a college like Smith or Bryn Mawr that you would apply to one of the postgraduate schools where the professors were from Yale or Harvard.” Smith’s strong art history department under Henry Russell Hitchcock and its architectural drafting classes prepared women for studies in the built environment. “It was a good time to be a woman in architecture school—you were assumed to be pretty bright if you got in. It was well before any tendency to consider women ‘token’ anything.” Other students of note of the early sixties included Etel Thea Kramer (’64) who wrote on Louis Sullivan and practiced in New Mexico, Phyllis Lambert (’61) the founder of the Center for Canadian Architecture, Betsy Barlow Rogers (’64, City Planning) founder of the Central Park Conservancy, and Joan Countryman (’66, City Planning) head of the Lincoln school, and Oprah Winfrey’s Leadership Academy in South Africa.

Gabi Goldschmidt (’71, professor emeritus at Teknion, in Jerusalem), whose book Linkography: Unfolding the Design Process will be published by MIT Press next year, moved from Paris to Yale as a transfer student in 1966. She said that only four out of two hundred students at the school were women, while at the Teknion, sixty percent of the architecture students were women. Although it was a change, she said, “It was not one that I felt had an impact on what I was doing or how I was doing it at school and beyond.”

When women were finally admitted to Yale College in 1969, tumultuous events affected the school, such as the fire at the A&A Building, the Black Panther trials, and protests for equal rights. Ellen Leopold (’71, a Cambridge-based author) remembers printing fake dollar bills with Kingman Brewster’s face on the new Xerox machine in the A&A library as part of a protest against the lack of scholarships for minorities in the school.

Sara Caples (’74, principal of Caples Jefferson, in New York) explains, “It felt more like a men’s school where they tolerated a few women kicking round too. I used to entertain myself by asking various administration types if there was a quota—always hotly denied. Which was strange since for a number of years women up to my class were always about ten percent of the class. Then in the class after mine, women miraculously got smarter and were about thirty-three percent for a number of years, until they got smarter yet and approached parity. Pretty amazing how rapidly women evolved in their spatial gifts!”

Women were as much a part of the Building Project (founded by Charles Moore, dean 1965–1970) as the men, using a hammer and doing heavy lifting alongside them. Louise Braverman (’77, of New York–based Braverman Architects) saw the Building Project as a leveling field. She worked on a health-care clinic for coal miners in Cabin Creek, West Virginia. “We bonded, and it was great that we could go to another place to learn and contribute to social issues. But Yale was a boys’ school, barely a mixed environment, and when I taught as Vincent Scully’s TA, you could feel the novelty of coeducation, that they just weren’t used to having us around.”

Leopold, who graduated a bit earlier, recalls acts of disrespect from her male fellow classmates: “The very first day I was in the studio and a (male) classmate came up to me and said, ‘You do know, don’t you, that by enrolling in this program, you are taking a job away from a breadwinner? So another family will starve because of you.’ This was totally unexpected and shocking to me.”

She also recalled unnecessary sabotaging of the women’s workplace: “Like everyone else in my class, I equipped my desk in the studio, at great expense, with all the required bits and pieces—angle poise lamp, Mylar sheet, straight edge, pencil sharpener, etc. When I returned the next day I discovered that everything, absolutely everything but the desk itself, had been removed and stolen. A student from the second or third year saw my consternation and told me that it could’ve been worse, that a woman in a class a few years ahead of mine had this happen to her twice. Not one member of the faculty expressed concern or showed any willingness to intervene. Sadly, I didn’t make a fuss but went out and replaced everything.”

All the women talk about the memorable practitioner-teachers, riveting juries, brilliant fellow students, and camaraderie. Patricia Patkau (’78, of Patkau Architects) said, “I loved every moment at Yale, the quality of instruction, the resources, the diversity; it was eye-opening. It was also an introduction to a quality that the world offers in architecture rather than just local conditions and the idea that you could operate in that global range.” Marion Weiss (’84, of Weiss Manfredi) emphasized the egalitarian quality: “While it could be a somewhat ruthless meritocracy, there was little inflection to the teaching or engagement with critics based on gender; expectations were high for everyone. The school of architecture had a level of intensity and intimacy, both competitive and supportive, and this environment established a framework for me to work with confidence within the perpetually ambiguous landscape of architecture.”

When discussions turned to mentors or women professors, there were few. Weiss, who studied with James Stirling, remembers “the relative scarcity of women critics leading the upper-level design studios. The experience of having Andrea Leers as a visiting professor supported many design positions; she demanded a level of commitment to the evolution of a project and her clarity as a critic has continued. She has been a role model for me and for many of my female colleagues at Yale, and later at Harvard, and was committed to the productive reciprocity of teaching and practicing architecture simultaneously.”

Celia Imrey (’93) of Imrey Colbert Architects recalls how the social issues and housing projects that comprised the studios under Tom Beeby (dean 1985–91) prepared her to enter the male dominant world of public projects.

Maya Lin didn’t seem to mind the unequal gender ratio. She said that “a decade after Yale went coed it was as if women had always been there. In my graduate school architecture class, however, there were only seven. But that was an anomaly since women who had been accepted chose not to come that year. The ratio was large—seven women to thirty or so men—which was extremely unusual; the classes above and below us were much more even in numbers. There was no sense of gender bias or discrimination; though perhaps the fact that it didn’t seem unusual is what was so unusual.”

Over the years, the number of women at Yale grew and so did their recognition at the school and their awards. Heather Cass (’72) won the William Winchester Prize in 1972, and Hilary Brown (’74) won it two years later. As Caples notes, “Although there weren’t a lot of women talking up activism, many earned respect for their dedicated work.” With the Schimberg award in 1981, additional opportunities for recognition were made available.

Today, while the disparity between male and female architects is diminishing, Professor Dolores Hayden notes that “coeducation means equal numbers of women and men active at every rank of the faculty and the administration, not just equal numbers of female and male students.” Even in 1999, there was only one woman in the post-professional class and few faculty or guest professors, jurors, lecturers, or subjects of exhibitions. In 2002, Peggy Deamer recognized the need for a discussion platform, and convened a conference, “Women, Families, and the Architecture Profession,” which sparked an interest in furthering discussions.

Female students at Yale in 2006 saw the need for a student-run Yale Women in Architecture group primarily out of curiosity about what career obstacles might lay ahead of them. Of the meetings, one woman recalled, “I was happy to be involved because it was obviously nice to have some kind of solidarity, but the meetings weren’t about that.” Meetings featured guest speakers, who gave talks on their own career trajectories and work-family balance given the high demands of architecture, which is an issue that needed a platform for discussion and an issue acknowledged by Dean Robert Stern himself.

It also may or may not have a been coincidence that the founding of Yale Women in Architecture coincided with the 2006 Yale second-year portfolio review in which nine students were failed and made to repeat a semester; seven of them were women.

The Women’s Faculty Forum (WFF), founded in 2000, plays a large part at Yale today and was inspirational to the architecture school’s new organization. Hayden and Nancy Alexander (Yale College ’79, MBA ’84) among others, began an awareness effort with the university’s Tercentennial by and for Yale women faculty members including conferences, workshops, and policy ideas. In September 2001, they organized the Gender Matters conference and continued with symposia, workshops, and a detailed Web site on the history and current work of women at Yale. Focusing most recently on the formation of the University Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct, it is supported by the Office of the President and the Provost with over 950 members.

However, the dilemma remains for young female architects: How to be wise and outspoken about the issues at hand without appearing a “victim” of the maledominant system? Yale does prepare women to run their own practices, which often allows for the flexibility of today’s lifestyles. Indeed, there is still a need to address the unique challenges facing women’s entry into the profession. Claire Weisz asks, “how should women be recognized and what is success in the profession today? Women have been in the minority in architecture, but sometimes the greatest work comes from outsiders. The particularity of a woman’s experience can also generate strength and create opportunity.”

—Nina Rappaport with Jamie Chan (’08)




“Properly qualified women are admitted as candidates for degrees of Bachelor of Laws, Master of Arts, Master of Science, Doctor of Medicine, Doctor of Public Health, and Doctor of Philosophy, and the Certificate of Public Health, also as members of the Schools of Music and Fine Arts.”
1920 School of Fine Arts Bulletin

Note page from the 1920-1921 Department of Architecture Bulletin.