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Happy International Women's Day

Thursday 8th March, 2018

On International Women's Day Vicky reflects on some unsung planning heroes. This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of The Planner Magazine 

The further you go back in history, the fewer women you see. This trend is reflected in art, literature, science – and planning. We know that women have been around all the time, because there’s a lot of oil paintings of them lounging about in the nude; but we rarely see their work or hear about their thoughts or stories. Their ideas are not obfuscated by the mists of time or lost to the annals of history; they were rarely recorded or preserved in the first place. Some of this phenomenon is due to the societal restrictions placed on women; prevented from accessing education and excluded from the workplace, they may not have produced work on the same scale as men. However, any work they did produce was also not treated with the same seriousness. Their art was just a pastime, their writing merely a hobby; it wasn’t to be viewed with the reverence reserved for the gleaming brilliance of male thought. 

Can you name a famous female planner from history? Of course you can – it’s Jane Jacobs. But can you name another? And yet another? It starts to get more difficult. How about if I ask you to name one from the 1800s? Any planner worth their salt can rattle off Geddes (1854-1932), Howard (1850-1928) and Unwin (1863-1940), even good old Hippodamus from Miletus gets a mention in most planning courses and he was knocking about in 498BC! In honor of International Women’s Day 2018 I would like to take you back to the 1800s and tell you about two radical female planners who deserve to be celebrated.

First up, Jane Sophia Appleton. A housewife in the mid-1800s, Jane was unsurprisingly not too thrilled with her place in society. She dreamed of a free and equal future, and in 1848 imagined a vision of her home city of Bangor, Maine, set in the distant 1970s. She proposed a radical reorganisation of domestic work, which in turn would necessitate brand new forms of urban design. In her future, “due compensation would be given to all industry, whether in man, woman or child”. Mechanised laundry services and “eating houses” that catered for the entire community would free women from their domestic prisons and require a complete reshaping of streets, blocks and meeting places.

By taking “womens work” out of the house and into the public sphere she made their unpaid labour as visible as the tasks of male “breadwinners”. That she chose to situate her feminist utopia in a time period we now regard as a hotbed of sexism and racism seems ironic now. Would she be envious or disappointed to see how far we have come in 170 years? I imagine a little bit of both.

Around a similar time, another housewife, Melusina Fay Peirce, railed at what she called the “costly and unnatural sacrifice” of her wider talents to the “dusty drudgery of house ordering”. I think we’ve all had those moments. I may, on occasion, have melodramatically lamented the cruel waste of my creative and intellectual genius when I haven’t feel like doing the hoovering. Now, though, we hopefully share such duties with a partner or housemates, and domestic tasks are not our sole purpose, but rather something we manage to shoehorn into a weekend of far more cerebral activities (Netflix, bottomless brunch etc).

Like Appleton, Peirce wanted to address the gender imbalance in domestic work. She believed women should be paid for housework and organised the women of her town to agitate for it. She developed the concept of “cooperative housekeeping”, imagining groups of twelve to fifty women performing domestic work collectively. The team of housekeepers would dress comfortably, without corsets, and be paid wages equivalent to male work of a similar skill level.

Again, this social restructuring would necessitate a physical transformation of the urban fabric. Peirce designed neighbourhoods with kitchenless houses, arranging them in blocks of four. Thirty-six houses would be served by one cooperative housekeeping centre. Peirce believed fiercely in the ability of women to design their physical environment and her belief was not unfounded. Her orthogonal blocks are drawn at a human scale that would no doubt create a pleasant walkable and legible neighbourhood, in which houses sociably front onto the street and yards provide defensible space between the private and public spheres.

It is striking to me how the visions of these women resonate with current thinking around community housing. Appleton and Peirce would no doubt recognise their ideas reflected in the common houses, communal spaces and shared facilities of Springhill, Stroud, or in ‘New Ground’ the UK’s first senior co-housing community for women over 50. Although their ideas sprung from a desire for greater gender equality and freedom, their concepts of sharing resources and efficiently using space also make a great deal of sense when viewed in the context of current issues like the housing crisis and our dwindling planetary resources.

We now live in a time when women’s ideas are far more visible than they were in Appleton and Peirce’s day, but we are not equal yet. Recently, the Architects Journal revealed a sobering picture in their Women in Architecture Survey, including sexual harassment and a widening pay gap at senior levels. Too often, industry events are presided over by all-male panels and we still see a distinct imbalance between the percentage of women on planning courses and the percentage in the workplace. Importantly, we are also realising that inequality does not exist in silos; the same internalised power structures that affect women also affect people of colour, the LGBTQ+ community and those with mental health issues or different levels of body capability. In a hyper-connected world we now have the power to amplify each other’s voices, celebrate each other’s ideas and share each other’s stories. So, this International Women’s Day I remain hopeful and motivated to work for a better future, in honour of the centuries of women whose potential we will never know.

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