Historic buildings don’t necessarily spring to mind when we think of advocacy for women.
Being around historic buildings throughout my life and knowing about the women who had been there helped me take for granted women’s capacity to lead and effect change. Working with historic buildings uncovered their potential role in telling a comprehensive history and advocating for a more equitable future. This is a story of how my journey brought me to this conclusion and some of its takeaways.
A Visitor’s Experience
Everything began with family. I was raised near Princeton, New Jersey, in the town where George Washington crossed the Delaware in 1776. I grew up around beautifully restored historic structures, and travels usually included visits to historic places. I also spent a lot of time visiting family in southwestern Pennsylvania, which has an eclectic mix of French and Indian War sites, Gilded Age architecture and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. This background made me love looking for architectural details and being in the presence of historic buildings. My earliest encounter with a historic structure with a story was probably in the house that my great-great-grandmother built in that area in the 1920s. Beyond its crystal octagon door knobs and stained glass windows was the tantalizing history: my politically minded great-great-grandmother built the house with a thirty-foot living room for entertaining. My mother and grandmother told stories of how she invited her women’s organizations there to meet her cousin, who served in the U.S. Congress at the time. She believed that women’s voices belonged in the political process, and this was her version of kitchen table politics.
Some Christmas trips to that part of the country included candlelight services at the Phillip G. Cochran Memorial United Methodist Church. It happened to be built by another female family member, Sarah B. Cochran, who was both a coal magnate’s widow and a coal magnate in her own right. Her husband, Phillip, taught her the business before he died in 1899, and she took it over as a widow. In one of her philanthropic ventures, she built this church and named it in his memory. The style was High Gothic Revival and meant to resemble Scottish or English parish churches. The sanctuary featured the L. Sturm copy of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna that Sarah bought in Dresden at the turn of the century. A church built by a woman – with this striking painting of the most revered woman of the New Testament inside it – was proof of the place a woman could have in the world. Thankfully, a concerned group of people from the church had the building added to the National Register of Historic Places in the 1980s.
My environment reinforced the fact that women could travel, build, lead and be part of the political process. But we can learn just as much from buildings where women have been denied access. When I was growing up, my mother made sure that I knew about Muriel Siebert, not just because she was the first woman to buy a seat on the New York Stock Exchange in 1967, but because – as a woman – she still wasn’t allowed to ride the elevator at the Union League by the 1970s. When Siebert died, her New York Times obituary described her walking through the Union League’s kitchen and up a back stairway to get to a particular board meeting there. Siebert testified against discriminatory practices in New York clubs and threatened to have a portable toilet delivered to the New York Stock Exchange if a women’s restroom wasn’t added to its seventh floor in 1987. (The restroom was added.)
In college at Smith, I lived in a Victorian “cottage” that was built as one of its first dormitories. As first years (i.e., freshmen because there are no men), upperclasswomen told us how certain older campus buildings were designed based on prior eras’ expectations for women. For example, a nineteenth century academic building had stairs with low risers so nineteenth century students wouldn’t strain their reproductive organs before they could have children. When that building was designed, that was actually a concern in larger discussions about educating women. Helen Horowitz’s wonderful book, Alma Mater, described in detail the architectural history of the Seven Sisters colleges and the viewpoints that factored into certain designs. At some point after graduation, I devoured it and began to think about how the built environment could reflect perceptions or perpetuate certain behavior. We were much more a part of the structures than we knew, even when we weren’t the builders.
Years later I was in business school and taking a course in Tours, France, and a memorable find there was a plaque with a wrought iron marker at 39 rue Colbert. It was the building where Joan of Arc bought her armor before going off to battle. This place wasn’t about the spiritual vision or the battlefield or the burning at the stake, but the logistics that aren’t usually part of her story. It also wasn’t untouchable, like a painting in a museum; it was a building that people were using. That marker memorialized the universal, human details of preparation and the unusual experience of a 15th century woman going to war.
A Steward’s Experience
One of my first jobs in the business world was underwriting high net worth clients’ homes, art collections and jewelry, and there were often beautiful historic homes in that mix. Our role was to consider how to protect property, which might be part of a legacy. It drove home the point that we are stewards of these places and things that will outlive each of us. Armed with that, I served on the board of trustees of the Alice Paul Institute, which is headquartered in a circa 1800 farmhouse called Paulsdale. The house had once belonged to the family of suffrage leader and ERA writer Alice Paul, and it was her refuge during her quest for the 19th Amendment. By the time I joined the board, the house had been restored for adaptive reuse as the organization’s office, exhibit space and archive. It was a place where politicians spoke on Women’s Equality Day, where women took leadership classes, and the public learned about the 19th Amendment and the ERA. It was also just a beautiful house. My most startling learning there was the fact that only 4% of American places with National Historic Landmark status were related to women at that time. This seemed astounding to me, not just because women are 51% of the population, but because historic preservation has benefited from the work of women. Jane Jacobs, the Mount Vernon Ladies Association and Jackie Kennedy are just a few names that come to mind. Does this statistic reflect an incomplete knowledge of what women contributed, a narrow definition of what constitutes a significant contribution, or a need for more people to get involved in historic preservation?
Later I completed a Certificate program in Historic Preservation because of personal interest and the experiences that I just described. One of the things that struck me in that program was how people who might not have thought about women’s history became intrigued by Alice Paul’s work when I talked about Paulsdale. The architecture piqued their interest, but it was the history that captivated them. To me, it was proof that women’s history is everybody’s history.
What are we empowered to do when we stand where a woman’s story of courage took place or when we learn that our access to that place was only very recent? Susan B. Anthony once said “Organize, agitate, educate must be our war cry,” and that seems to apply to historic structures.
- Look to the past and the future
Some people see historic buildings as stuck in the past and advocating for women as forward-looking, but the two aren’t necessarily distinct. When they intersect, they can raise issues that encourage advocacy. The past is more female than we think, and historic structures can bring history’s women out of the theoretical realm to motivate any of us to understand our present, raise questions and take action for a specific issue or more generally. Looking forward also engages a broader pool of volunteers and visitors.
- Get the word out
Markers are a great way to make a place’s importance known to visitors or they may be part of larger recognition. It’s important to consider virtual visitors as well. In an example that educates and involves people beyond blog posts and articles, the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites has created an online Votes for Women National Trail which displays locations that were involved in the American women’s suffrage movement. The public is invited to add sites to it.
- Expand site interpretation to include women individually or broadly
Sometimes women played a smaller role in a building’s history, but its interpretation could still speak to that role. For example, I once toured a historic home that belonged to a signer of the Declaration of Independence. The guide indicated that the signer’s wife buried documents that contained names of her husband’s contacts so those lists wouldn’t be available if the British arrived at the house. She might have helped to save those contacts’ lives. Not all historic structures have such a heroic story, and in that case there’s an opportunity to speak generally to women’s roles or legal status in the structure’s period of significance. Maybe the deed to a historic house only included the husband’s name because of the period’s property laws. This seemingly inane piece of information would make a powerful addition to a guide’s talk or interpretive materials if it were used to illustrate a lesser known concept, like coverture, and its far-reaching impact on women.
- Use architecture to engage a more diverse audience
Organizations specifically related to women’s history sometimes struggle with name recognition, and their visitors may already appreciate women’s roles in history. When operating in historic buildings, these organizations have a unique opportunity to expose a broader audience to women’s history by promoting their buildings’ architecture, whether that’s online or on site. New visitors might be drawn to the structure itself and then struck by the compelling history that happened there. It might be a matter of choosing where to advertise the site or hosting a talk by a preservationist or architect. It could also mean broadening the organization’s social media images to include the structure’s architectural elements, like a newel post detail or an antique lighting fixture. Featuring visitors’ photos of these kinds of things is also a great way to engage visitors and save staff the time of taking pictures.
Kimberly Hess, Guest Blogger
Kimberly Hess received a B.A. from Smith College, an MBA from Rutgers Business School and a Certificate in Historic Preservation from the Caspersen School of Graduate Studies at Drew University. During a nearly twenty-year business career, she held volunteer leadership positions at the local and global levels for Smith College and was a trustee of the Alice Paul Institute.
Alice Paul Institute website www.alicepaul.org. Accessed 12 February 2018.
“Muriel Siebert, a Determined Trailblazer for Women on Wall Street, Dies at 80.” New York Times, Enid Nemy, 25 August 2013. Accessed 26 August 2013.
National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites www.ncwhs.org. Accessed 12 February 2018.
“National Historic Landmarks & National Register of Historic Places in Pennsylvania” (searchable database). CRGIS: Cultural Resources Geographic Information System. Note: This includes Albert V. Mong, Jr. (May 1980). “National Register of Historic Places Inventory Nomination Form: Philip G. Cochran Memorial United Methodist Church” (PDF). Retrieved 23 January 2012.
Philip G. Cochran Memorial United Methodist Church 75th Anniversary 1927-2002. Church anniversary booklet. No publisher given.
Horowitz, Helen Lefkowitz. Alma Mater: Design and Experience in the Women’s Colleges from Their Nineteenth Century Beginnings to the 1930s. University of Massachusetts Press. 1993.