From August 13–26, 1978, 78 women from 17 states as well as Canada gathered at Roger Williams College (today Roger Williams University) in Bristol, RI, to discuss the integration of values and identities they held both as women and as designers. The Women’s School of Planning and Architecture (WSPA, pronounced “wis-pa”) met for its Third Session organized around the relationships women have—personally and professionally—to their home and work environments, historically, cross-culturally, and based on differences in race and socio-economic class.
Conceived by seven women in 1974, the WSPA was “a ‘school’ of our own where we could learn from each other—all of us teachers and students, exchanging questions, challenging convention, inventing new areas of inquiry and research, and sharing knowledge in a supportive atmosphere where women’s accomplishments would be visible, their skills respected, and their differences valued.” The WSPA held four sessions between 1975 and 1979, each organized in August and lasting two weeks with approximately 60 women in attendance, as well as a symposium in 1981 with well over two hundred women in attendance. Each session was held in a different state, to help make it easier for women all across the country to be able to attend. Women were invited to bring children between the ages of 3 and 12, and child care was provided to enable women to participate fully in the session. While there were instructors and students, the spirit of the program was cooperative and non-hierarchical, and courses were often team-taught.
This radical approach to education was mirrored in WSPA’s programming: the course covered energy-conscious design, feminist analysis of the built environment, and the politics of architecture and planning, particularly as related to social housing projects. The group explored their local surroundings, visiting colonial homes and mansions in Newport, and went on walking tours of Newport and Bristol to gain a sense of the daily life of women in the area. They visited the Junius Eddy House in Little Compton (1975), the first solar air-heated house in the state. Women presented on their own environments in slide presentations of dwellings and workplaces, with a particular focus on “Women’s Anonymous Architecture of the West Coast” to balance their location in the Northeast. They held seminars on the “ecology of sex roles,” examining personal perceptions and biases about the built environment based on traditional sex roles, and on China, looking at women’s daily life as experienced in four weeks of travel in China in 1977 at the invitation of the Architectural Society of China. Workshops covered low technology energy conservation, working in the private and public sectors, the feminist curricula in academia, as well as planning for the future of WSPA.
The middle weekend was a break-out session, which could be attended separate from the rest of the program (as 31 women did), with workshops on energy conservation, women’s professional organizations and networking, the challenges of neighborhood revitalization, and a presentation by the newly initiated Women’s Policy and Program Division of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which also ran a workshop on Community Block Grants. Throughout, conversations centered on how, as women architects, they could do what they wanted to professionally with the lifestyle they desired, and how they could help other women in the process. The participants were not building a school, per se, but a space in which to network, workshop, and think collaboratively—a means of connection that allowed them to support each other in fostering creative growth.