Special Collections has celebrated Women’s History Month 2018 with numerous exhibits in Newman Library and the Holtzman Alumni Center. Part of our focus has been on some of the first women who attended or worked at Virginia Tech. I’ve written before about some of VT’s female trailblazers, but I decided to concentrate on the first international woman to graduate, Maria del Carmen Venegas. She has the additional distinction of being the first known Latina/Hispanic woman to study at Virginia Tech.
Called Carmen by her friends, Venegas earned one of two scholarships awarded by the government of her home nation Costa Rica, making it possible for her to attend the university. Before graduating in 1938 with a B.S. in electrical engineering, she was a member of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers and was the only woman in the organization of nearly 40 students at that time.
A founding member of the Short Wave Club, Venegas trained students in amateur radio operations. She taught classes in radio operation and acted as Hostess for the Club in 1937. The Short Wave Club is a predecessor to the student-run group, the Virginia Tech Amateur Radio Association, exemplifying how her and other students’ contributions to the university have made an impact that can still be felt today.
In addition to her school activities, Venegas is remembered as a pilot, even keeping her own airplane in Lynchburg. In 1937, the National Intercollegiate Flying Club invited her to join a convoy from Washington, D.C., to view air races in Miami, Florida. Out of 100 pilots, Venegas was the only Virginia-based woman in the bunch!
Sadly, Carmen Venegas and her alma mater did not keep in contact after she graduated. Although her whereabouts remained unknown, Venegas was listed in the alumni directories, until her name was finally removed in 1998, the 50th anniversary of her graduation.
Marie-Louise Laleyan once wrote in an article for the “Daily Pacific Builder’s” Women in Construction issue of an exchange she had with her father during the opening reception for a public housing project for which she had been the architect. She recounted that upon seeing their nametags a group of happy attendees approached them exclaiming, “Here is the architect” and promptly shook her father’s hand:
“They are congratulating me because of my daughter!” He was almost in tears.
“Well … no. They think you are the architect.”
“Why would they think that?” he wanted to know.
“Oh, it is a long story. I may even write a book about it. Let’s go home.”’
And it is that long story, nestled here into a fond anecdote, that defines a great deal of Laleyan’s work within the broader architectural profession.
I have been encountering—in part through happenstance, but also likely in part because of the particular architectural collections with which I have been most involved as of late—an abundance of materials related to the status and (often) undervaluation of the contributions of women in many professional fields. Apart from archival records, I recently listened to a 2016 episode of the podcast 99% Invisible that showcased the near erasure of photographer Lucia Moholy from the history of the Bauhaus—an institution that owed its reputation at least in part to her astounding (unpaid and uncredited) documentation. Recent books, such as Where are the Women Architects, and excellent articles such as the 2012 piece “The Incredible True Adventures of the Architectress in America,” which appeared in the journal Places, have refocused my attention on how that “long story” that Marie-Louise Laleyan mentioned fits into an ongoing conversation. A call to examine the current state of the architectural field—of nearly any field—also encourages reflection on how past decades of women’s experiences and actions can inform a conversation going forward.
Laleyan had what is likely a common experience for women entering the American architectural scene in the mid-1960s, which is to say that she was often told that firms did not hire women. She noted in an interview years later that, “My reaction of ‘how stupid’ has not changed in 22 years!” To say she defied the barriers to entry is an understatement. She went on, after working her way up in several firms, to found Laleyan Associates, Architects. Her project records, held by the International Archive of Women in Architecture (IAWA), reveal a lot about the constant need to assert her authority as an architect.
From Marie-Louise Laleyan’s project files.
For instance, filed into the general correspondence associated with any project, we find glimmers of the difficulty Laleyan sometimes faced in being taken seriously or authoritatively. Between the contracts, bid documents, cost estimates, schedules of work, invoices, field reports, change orders, specifications, revised plans, and the general back and forth between architects, owners, and contractors, are observations about undercutting. When viewed en masse, these suggest a challenge to the expertise of a woman working in a male-dominated field.
In some of the following examples, Laleyan has to remind contractors and owners of her professional role in a project, ask that they do not undermine her, and note the outright disrespect of her knowledge and expertise.
In the last section Laleyan notes her encounter with a sub-contractor during an inspection. He, among other challenges, asserts that “she doesn’t know what she is talking about.” Laleyan goes on to record that this is a repeated challenge and that she will not tolerate such interactions.
In reference to a letter from a contractor, Laleyan notes in section A that “I do not “challenge” contractors. I administer the construction contract as required by my agreement…” and later notes “occasionally contractors have disagreed with my interpretation of the contract documents, but you are the first who has challenged persistently my authority to interpret those documents and my right to make decisions, based on those interpretations.”
The notes in the last section recount Laleyan’s experience of being yelled at in front of a job superintendent, workers, and others. She goes on to mention that while she did not respond on grounds of professional behavior, she will not tolerate a project development supervisor undermining her authority with the contractor.
Laleyan notes that she would appreciate it if her designs were followed and not “improved upon” by the contractor.
Beyond Laleyan’s success as an architect and owner of her own firm, she had a prominent role in professional organizations and helped to begin actively addressing the challenges that she and other women were facing. She tackled barriers to entry, noting that when she had studied in Bulgaria half of the architectural students were women. She went on to co-found the Organization of Women Architects in 1972, and against the background of 1970s feminist initiatives she contributed a great deal to the conversations and actions that were taking place to encourage a sense of equity within the profession. Apart from participating in organizations that helped to support and encourage other women in the field, Laleyan worked in high-level roles in the American Institute of Architects (AIA), which had a high barrier to participation for professional women. She co-authored the 1975 AIA Affirmative Action Plan and co-chaired the AIA Task Force on Women in Architecture, among other roles. The studies and action plans outlined as part of the AIA initiative helped to move the inclusion of women in the professional activities of the field forward, but as Laleyan noted in her 1980s article for Daily Pacific Builder, “the arguments about the success of the Affirmative Action Plan still go on.” It’s arguable that the core of those recommendations and the issues they address are still relevant today, and are applicable in many fields where women still represent a minority of participants. Still, the increased awareness and forthright conversation about barriers, as well as the existence of toolkits and resources to support women entering the field, likely owe their existence to earlier initiatives such as these.
Looking through a historical lens at Marie-Louise Laleyan’s work provides a microcosm of the experiences of many women architects working at the time (certainly the papers in many of the IAWA Collections attest to similar experiences). But such bridges to the past that examine issues of gender equity, professional practice, and labor issues almost demand to be viewed along a continuum and alongside the work of women in related fields. As Laleyan stated practically with regard to the 1970s AIA Affirmative Action Plan, “What has been achieved in the last ten years is more than I expected. The rest is up to the next generation.”
The OWA still works on behalf of the vision the group outlined in the 1970s. Visit the website for history, newsletters, and current initiatives and projects. Papers from the IAWA Collection are available to view in person in the Virginia Tech Special Collections reading room.
When she wasn’t designing offices for Silicon Valley giants like Apple and IBM, Sigrid Rupp was busy traveling around the world, writing and sketching the scenes that caught her eye. From 1966 to 2003, she visited over 30 countries, traveling extensively throughout North America, Europe, and East Asia. With an eye for design in environments both natural and built, she meticulously documented her many travels in photographs, diaries and sketchbooks. Maybe a little different from the typical contents in our many collections that form the International Archive of Women in Architecture, but I think they help show who Sigrid Rupp was- always curious, always creating.
Rupp developed her fascination with architecture and the built environment as a child growing up in post-war Germany in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Much of Europe was in the process of rebuilding from the devastation of World War II, and Rupp got to witness first-hand how modern architecture and urban planning could transform communities. At age 10 she moved with her family to California, and at 17 she enrolled at UC Berkeley to study architecture. In 1976, 5 years after receiving her architectural license, she founded her own firm, SLR Architects, in the San Francisco bay area, where she served as president until she closed the office in 1998.
Rupp traveled and sketched extensively throughout her career, but after her retirement, she devoted more time to travels and to watercolor painting. Her watercolors of bay area landscapes were featured in several juried shows of the Pacific Art League of Palo Alto. She also began hosting a rotating art show at the Ravenswood Medical Clinic in East Palo Alto, where she had previously worked as project architect.
Rupp kept traveling and sketching until late 2003, when she was diagnosed with gastric cancer. After a six month battle, she passed away on May 27th, 2004, at age 61. In her obituary, her family writes that she was “was the life of the party at family functions where she told stories from her extensive travels and loved her champagne.” Though her adventures were cut short, her passion for seeing the world lives on in her travel diaries and sketchbooks, which can be seen in full in our reading room. The finding aid for the Sigrid Rupp Collection contains an extensive list of all the sketches, photographs and recollections from her travels. You can see a small sampling of items from her collection, including some of these drawings, on our IAWA digital collections site. Happy travels!
Working with the History of Food & Drink Collection for the last few years has helped me build up an interest in advertising. Since 2011, we’ve been acquiring materials for our Culinary Pamphlet Collection, which contains hundreds of pamphlets, booklets, and cards/card sets. Much of the collection consists of small recipes books that consumers would either have sent away for or received free, full of recipes that use a product or products and aimed at encouraging future purchasing. In 2013, we started building the Culinary Ephemera Collection, which contains things like labels, broadsides, trade cards, puzzles, menus, and postcards. There are lots of great bites of culinary ephemera–just the kind of items you’ll find me blogging about on “What’s Cookin’ @Special Collections?!” It’s through food and food advertising history that I first got into trade cards, but that’s not the only place you’ll find them.
Which brings us to Coade’s Lithodipyra or Artificial Manufactory Trade Card:
This collection is among what we call our “1-folder collections.” The entire collection, in this case, consists of the single trade card, probably printed around 1784. But, there’s a great deal of history to even a single small piece of paper. (In other words, don’t let the size of a collection fool you!)
The image is believed to have been one carved above the door at the factory. The woman whose belt is labeled “Ignea Vis” (or, “Firey Force”) appears to be overpowering a winged figure, who has both a tail and a trumpet, but we have no other clue to who or what he represents. The text reads:
Coade’s Lithodipyra or Artificial Stone Manufactory For all kind of Statues, Capitals, Vases, Tombs, Coats of Arms & Architectural ornaments &c &c; particularly expressed in Catalogues, & Books of Prints of 800 Articles & upwards, Sold at ye Manufactory near Kings Arms Stairs, Narrow Wall Lambeth, opposite Whitehall Stairs, London
The Latin above the three women reads, “nec edax abolere vestusas.” This is most likely the second half of the second of two lines from Ovid’s Metamorphosis: Iamque opus exegi, quod nec Iovis ira nec ignis/nec poterit ferrum nec edax abolere vetustas. Of, if you prefer: “And now my work is done, which neither the anger of Jupiter, nor fire,/nor sword, nor the gnawing tooth of time shall ever be able to destroy.” It seems an obvious advertising suggestion at the timelessness of the artificial stone manufactured by the company. Which brings us to Coade’s Lithodipyra or Artificial Stone Manufactory.
Coade’s was a company run by Eleanor Coade (1733-1821). Her first business was as a linen-draper, but she eventually shifted to making artificial stone, referred to as “Coade stone.” (Seeing a woman run any sort of business at time is only one of the reasons the trade card is such a stand-out item!) She ran the company from 1769 until her death in 1821, at which point her last business partner, William Croggon, continued the business until 1833. Coade produced stone for famous architects of the time, including John Nash. Nash’s works using the stone included the Royal Pavilion, Brighton, and the refurbishment of Buckingham Palace in the 1820s. Other sites using the stone were St. George’s Chapel, Windsor and the Royal Naval College, Greenwich.
You can see the finding aid for the collection online. It offers a little more context to the trade card (designed by sculptor John Bacon, who studied at the Royal Academy). A trade card often seems like a simple thing, without much to do, other than advertise a company–but that isn’t usually the case. There’s a great deal of thought as to what goes into the design, what effect it might have, and what its real intention is. Certainly, Bacon probably thinking of this as a work of art, nor was Coade expecting it to last 231 and find its way to our collections, but it really is a work of art and it still has value over two centuries later. What that value is…well, art is in the eye of the beholder, just like research value. It’s up to you and me to figure out what this small, but not insignificant collection can mean.
In the early 1920s, the first female students at Virginia Tech were not quite welcome. They had special rules to follow, there were no dormitories for women, and male students would throw water on them as they passed by the dorms. But one day, Ruth Terrett, a civil engineering student, decided to show the men she could do just as well as them. She donned a cadet uniform and climbed the university’s water tower, a tradition the male cadets undertook to prove their strength and ability. That day, Ruth proved that women, when given the chance, could do what men could.
Women throughout Virginia Tech’s history have encountered many obstacles, and have consistently overcome them. Sam Winn and I (Laurel Rozema) recently searched through Special Collections’ holdings to document these women and their achievements in the university’s history. Our work culminated in an exhibit at the Alumni Association’s Women’s Weekend and a slideshow, entitled “Climbing the Water Tower: How Women Went from Intruders to Leaders at Virginia Tech.” Let me share with you a few of those milestones now, or you can view the PDF of our slideshow here.
Women join the student population
Many people know the story of the first female students: twelve women, including five full-time students, enrolled in 1921. Two years later, transfer student Mary Brumfield received a bachelor’s in applied biology, earning her master’s from VPI in 1925, the first woman to achieve either degree. But, did you know women began attending VPI several years earlier? They were allowed to sit in courses during the fall and spring for no credit and were admitted to summer classes, starting in 1916. 1921 was still a milestone year as it was the first all courses were open to women seeking a college degree, because there was “no good reason for not doing so” as the university bulletin states.
The first coeds, it must be admitted, were more than likely all white, given that segregation was legal due to Jim Crow laws and the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) upholding “separate but equal” racial segregation in the public sphere. It’s not clear when women of color were first admitted to the university, but international students from Mexico, China, Puerto Rico, and other places were already attending VPI by the 1920s. We believe the first woman from India to attend VPI was Kamini Mohan Patwary, who earned a master’s in statistics in 1955. However, it wasn’t until 1966 that the first six African American women matriculated, thirteen years after the first African American man and 55 years after the first women. In 1968, Linda Adams became the first African American woman to graduate from Virginia Tech. (Read more about her on our previously blog post.)
There wasn’t much for women to do athletically in the early years, so Ruth Terrett, mentioned above, started an informal women’s basketball team before graduating in 1925. Women joined the cheerleading team in 1941, but were not officially recognized as members until the 1955-1956 school year. The first intramural women’s sport was basketball in 1967. Three years later, swimming became the first intercollegiate sport for women, and women were allowed to compete on the gymnastics team.
Because the Corps of Cadets did not admit women, Patricia Ann Miller was denied permission to enroll in Corps classes. Despite this, in 1959, she became the first woman commissioned during graduation when she successfully applied for a commission from the Army Women’s Medical Specialist Corps. Finally, in 1973, the Corps formed the L Squadron, exclusively for female cadets. Deborah J. Noss became the first female squadron commander and Cheryl A. Butler the first female African American cadet (and squadron leader the next year). In 1975, women were admitted to join the cadet band, and four years later, the L Squadron was disbanded to order to integrate women into the formerly all-male companies. In 1987, Denise Shuster became the first female regimental commander and in 2005, Christina Royal the first African American female regimental commander.
Female students who were not athletes or cadets had other ways of “breaking the glass ceiling”. In 1953, Betty Delores Stough became the first woman to receive a doctorate, in parasitology. Jean Harshbarger was the first woman elected class president for the Class of 1974. In 1968, Jaqueline D. Dandridge was the first woman of color in the homecoming court, and Marva L. Felder became the first African American homecoming queen in 1983.
Women join the workforce
What about the women working at VPI? Ella Agnew is often remembered as the first female home demonstration agent in the nation in 1910. When the university became headquarters for the Virginia Cooperative Extension, Agnew and the other agents became staff of the university. Agnew was also the first woman to receive VPI’s Certificate of Merit in 1926, and Agnew Hall was the first campus building named after a woman in 1949. However, few realize she was not the first woman to work at Tech. In 1902, Frances Brockenbrough became Superintendent of the Infirmary, and the next year Mary G. Lacy became the first female Librarian and Margaret Spencer the President’s Secretary.
Other female agents worked for the Extension during its early years at the university. In fact, although the African American division was headquartered at Hampton Institute, the agents were considered non-resident staff of VPI, first listed in the 1917 university catalog. One of these women was Lizzie Jenkins, who became the first African American female home demonstration agent in Virginia in 1913.
Women faculty members are first listed in the university catalog for 1921-1922. Mary Moore Davis ranked as a professor and worked as a state home demonstration agent in the Extension Division. She also established the home economics degree program at VPI. The first Dean of Women was Mildred Tate, who served from 1937 to 1947, and the first female academic dean was Laura Jean Harper, who in 1960 became the first Dean of the School of Home Economics. (Read more about her on our previously blog post.) Heidi Ford in 1970, Ella L. Bates in 1974, and Johnnie Miles in 1974 became the first female African American faculty members at Virginia Tech.
Women began achieving executive positions in the 1980s and 1990s. Sandra Sullivan was named Vice President for Student Affairs in 1982, and Peggy S. Meszaros served as the first (and currently only) female Provost from 1995 to 2000. Women started serving on the Board of Visitors in 1944, when VPI and Radford College merged. However in 2014, Deborah L. Petrine became the first female Rector in the university’s then 142-year history.
Women by the numbers
Virginia Tech has gone through enormous changes since its founding in 1872, especially in the growth of opportunities for women. Women on the staff have grown from one female administrative officer in 1902 to five women faculty members (only 4.7% of the faculty) in 1921 to 1,525 or 39.5% of the faculty in 2014. The student population has grown from 12 women or 1.3% of the students in 1921 to 13,241 women or 42.4% of the student population in 2014.
According to the Digest of Education Statistics, in Fall 2013, women accounted for 54.6% of enrolled students, 48.8% of faculty, and 54.5% of total employees (including faculty) in degree-granting public institutions in the U.S. However, the Digest also shows that women received only 30.8% of the degrees conferred by STEM schools in 2012-2013. So, as far as women have come, there’s still more to do.
To commemorate this anniversary, the IAWA has partnered with the International Union of Women Architects ( UIFA) to host the 18th International Congress in Washington, D.C. and Blacksburg, Virginia. This event will bring professional architects from around the world to the Virginia Tech campus for a week of research presentations, collaboration, and networking. In the months leading up to the congress, we’ve been working with members of the IAWA advisory board to research and prepare exhibit materials that capture the depth, breadth, and uniqueness of the IAWA holdings. It has been an amazing opportunity to connect with the real-world community represented in the collections.
Formally established in the summer of 1985, the IAWA began with the work of one tireless educator and architectural historian. In 1983, Dr. Milka Bliznakov wrote over 1,000 letters to women architects around the world, hoping to learn how they planned to preserve their legacies. Dr. Bliznakov was inspired in part by conversations with her students, who asked why they never studied or read about the work of women architects. Dr. Bliznakov saw the consequences of leaving preservation to chance when the accomplishments of her own colleagues were marginalized or lost to history. She was determined to “correct the omission of women from architectural history,” ensuring that “future generations, simply because of a lack of information [cannot] say women architects never did anything.” 
Since that first summer, the IAWA has grown to document the legacies and experiences of more than 400 women in architecture and design. In Special Collections, we collect, preserve, and provide access to approximately 2000 cubic feet of IAWA materials which include personal correspondence, detailed architectural models, exhibit panels, artifacts, and visual materials capturing every step of the design process.
The women represented in the collections lived, taught, and practiced in more than thirty countries across five continents. Drawing upon their rich and varied experiences, the IAWA collections contribute to a broad understanding of what it means to be a “woman in architecture.” For example, a visitor to Special Collections could learn about:
The AIA Fellow who, when asked by a prospective male employer if she cried on the job, responded, “I don’t, but I’ve made a few contractors cry.”
Many of the women whose records we maintain were trailblazers and pioneers. Their stories also speak to universal experiences, whether the woman worked in partnership with her spouse, managed her own firm, or deferred her career to support her family. Perhaps the most exciting part of working with the IAWA collections is that – much like the global community of women architects – they are always growing. We look forward to sharing some of these stories with UIFA delegates from around the world this summer.
Architecture has often been, and in many ways still is, a male dominated profession. Early female pioneers in architecture were deemed “that exceptional one” based on a quote from Pietro Belluschi, FAIA stating “If [a woman] insisted on becoming an architect, I would try to dissuade her. If then, she was still determined, I would give her my blessing – she could be that exceptional one.” Virginia’s exceptional one was Mary Brown Channel.
Born December 8, 1907 to William Ambrose Brown and Mary Ramsay Brown of Portsmouth, VA, Channel attended Randolph-Macon’s Woman’s College earning a bachelor of Mathematics in 1929. She wanted to follow her brother to the University of Virginia to study architecture, but women were not accepted into the University’s graduate programs at the time. She instead applied and was accepted to Cornell University’s School of Architecture.
Graduating second in her class in 1933, she was the first woman to win the Baird Prize Competition Medal. The Baird Prize was a six day design competition held by Cornell for architecture students in their junior and senior years. Channel was awarded the second prize medal for her design of a “monumental aeration fountain for the city reservoir.”
Channel returned to Portsmouth, VA after graduation and began her career with the Norfolk architecture firm Rudolph, Cooke and Van Leeuwen. She drew no salary for her two years but gained valuable experience working with the team that designed the main post office in Norfolk as well as several other civic and organizational buildings. In 1935, Channel was one of three candidates in a class of five to pass Virginia Examining Board’s licensing exam becoming Virginia’s first licensed female architect.
Following her licensure she opened her own practice in Portsmouth, VA. In October, 1941 she married local businessman Warren Henry Channel. After the birth of her first child she limited her practice to residences and churches. Channel retained her license until 1990 and was actively drawing plans into her eighties.
She designed structures throughout southeastern Virginia. Some of her projects include the Lafayette Square Arch housing the main entrance of the demolished American National Bank, the old Virginia Power Company Building on High Street, Channel Furniture Store in Greenbrier, numerous houses, church additions, and renovations.
She was recognized in October, 1987, at an occasion honoring Portsmouth’s local and statewide notables. Channel died in 2006.