Historical Approaches to Feminist Questions – Gender + the Built Environment


Spring 2013

Mary McLeod + Victoria Rosner, instructors

The built environment – the human-made surroundings in which we live, work, and play — is shaped in important ways by ideas about gender, race and sexuality. Yet the built environment has been a relatively neglected area within women’s and gender studies, a neglect this course sought to redress. This course moved among literature, architecture, design and urban planning with a focus on the 19th century in England and the United States. It sought to lead students to adapt a critical perspective on the built environment, to analyze the rhetoric of architectural space and perhaps to consider why architecture remains among the most male-dominated of all the professions. We thought carefully about the meaning of women’s history and the various approaches to the historian’s work; assignments for the course, described below, gave students the opportunity to undertake archival research and compose and publish their own histories.  After a brief introduction to feminist architectural theory, we began by exploring the complex environs of the English country house, circa 1860, as well as its transatlantic cousin, the U.S. plantation household. Our end point was the year 1928, which saw the publication of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own as well as Adolf Loos’s design of a house for Josephine Baker (unbuilt). Along the way, we considered topics such as women’s confinement to the domestic sphere and identification with the home; public and private realms; the organization of sexuality in the city; the feminist utopian spatial imagination; and the evolution of women’s spaces for reading and writing.