Women's School of Planning and Architecture Records
The Women's School of Planning and Architecture (WSPA) was an experiment in feminist education for women interested in architecture, planning, and environmental design. The School was founded by Katrin Adam, Ellen Perry Berkeley, Noel Phyllis Birkby (see also N. Phyllis Birkby Papers, Bobbie Sue Hood, Marie I. Kennedy, Joan Forrester Sprague, and Leslie Kanes Weisman. The founders had met as a result of the formation of professional organizations for women architects and planners (beginning in 1972) and through attendance at the first U.S. conferences on women in architecture in 1974 and 1975. These opportunities to meet and share experiences with other women professionals led them to a conviction that an alternative educational experience would be a valuable way to address the "shared common goals and interests not being met within the existing professional contexts" according to the 1975 WSPA brochure.
The same brochure describes the founders goals:
...to create a personally supportive atmosphere and a stimulating exchange of ideas in a vacation setting. We hope to encourage both personal and professional growth through a fuller integration of our values and identities as women with our values and identities as designers. Our aim is to create a forum within which we may discover and define the particular qualities, concerns, and abilities that we as women bring to the environmental design professions.
WSPA was deliberately experimental. It was to be a new form of organization providing a new style of educational experience. The Coordinators used feedback from participants to make adjustments and innovations designed to help the organization better meet its goals. WSPA's founders understood that the development of an effective alternative school meant that there would be no set format for WSPA sessions. Within a general set of criteria, they envisioned an ever-changing and evolving entity responsive to the needs of the participants.
The School aimed to attract participants from diverse backgrounds and geographic locations by making an interest in environmental design the only admission "requirement" and by holding each session at a different location. Tuition was kept to a minimum and work-study scholarships were available. While the focus of the earlier sessions could be characterized as "consciousness raising, skill building, and [theoretical discussion]" among women who were primarily professionals and academics, in its latter years WSPA was moving toward involvement in political activism based on collaboration with "grassroots women."
According to co-founders Noel Phyllis Birkby and Leslie Kanes Weisman, all participants in WSPA were considered members of a peer group "equally responsible and equally capable of making a contribution" (in "The Women's School of Planning and Architecture," in Learning Our Way: Essays in Feminist Education). Sessions were planned by a group of Coordinators who were essentially self-selected, based on their willinginess and ability to devote the time and energy necessary to bring off a successful session. This was not a volunteer commitment, but a professional engagement paid through income generated by tuition fees.
The curriculum was designed to offer subject matter unavailable in standard academic or professional settings. Courses were conducted by methods designed to "eliminate some of the effects of male-defined and identified educations." Instructors emphasized "the active participation of all members of the group, minimizing the role of the coordinators as experts or authorities," while maximizing their "roles as information sources and organizers" (Birkby and Weisman).
There were five WSPA sessions in all: at St. Joseph's College in Biddeford, Maine, in 1975; at Stephenson College in Santa Cruz, California, in 1976; at Roger Williams College in Bristol, Rhode Island, in 1978; at Regis College in Denver, Colorado, in 1979; and a weekend symposium in Washington, DC, in 1981. A session planned and advertised for 1980 at Hood College in Frederick, Maryland, was cancelled when registration targets were not met.
The level of energy and commitment required to create a new style of organization offering an ever-changing educational experience soon proved difficult to sustain. Adding to the complexity was the fact that Coordinators were scattered around the country, making communication and consensus-building extraordinarily difficult. Though WSPA remained a legal corporation after the final session in 1981, no additional sessions came to fruition. Internal struggles developed, the School was perpetually short of money, and, probably most importantly, no group of Coordinators came forward to take on the challenge of planning a session. In a 1989 piece on WSPA for the book Architecture: A Place for Women, Leslie Kanes Weisman described it as a product of its time, ideal for "the consciousness-raising task of defining problems," but less useful for "designing and implementing solutions."