Women’s History Month Notable Women Series: Review of “Women of Steel and Stone” by Anna M. Lewis

The author profiles 22 women who pioneered in architecture, engineering, and landscape design. The stories are probably eye-opening for many readers. You will undoubtedly recognize many of the names of the men for or with whom most of these women worked; this is because it was the men who ended up either taking or just receiving all of the credit for the achievements of the women.

9781613745083

For example, you may have heard the names of Frank Lloyd Wright, Robert Venturi, and John Roebling. But few people know that Marion Mahony Griffin established Wright’s distinctive drawing style, or that Denise Scott Brown pioneered the urban planning innovations for which Venturi gets credit, or that Emily Roebling handled the position of chief engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge for most of its eleven years of construction because her husband was paralyzed and bedridden. Perhaps the only woman in this book from before the present day whose name has wide recognition is that of Julia Morgan, but that’s because she actually worked alone on the famous Hearst Castle at San Simeon, California.

Hearst Castle

Hearst Castle

One aspect of these women’s careers that probably won’t surprise you is all the obstacles they faced from gender prejudice. Some universities even had gender quotas in architecture and engineering, because to admit women would be to “waste space” on students who would just get married and be mothers instead of professionals.

Most of these stories have relatively happy endings, because all of these women ended up as giants in their fields. For example, Norma Merrick Sklarek became the first black woman to be made a fellow of the American Institute of Architects in 1980. In New York, she had done outstanding work at the firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. But when she moved to California, she was turned down for work 19 times before getting a job at Gruen Associates. She only later learned that Gruen had never before hired either a woman or a black as an architect. She ended up working there twenty years, and becoming the head of the architecture department.

Norma Merrick Sklarek had the nickname "the Rose Parks of Architecture."

Norma Merrick Sklarek had the nickname “the Rose Parks of Architecture.”

There are great stories like that all through this book, and it is also quite up-to-date, including such contemporary stars as Zaha Mohammed Hadid, probably the most famous architect alive today, whose work is celebrated all over the world.

One of Zaha Hadid’s beautiful and innovative buildings

One of Zaha Hadid’s beautiful and innovative buildings

Better yet, the book is full of additional and very useful resources. There are lists of top schools specializing in these fields; notes at the end of each chapter with titles of books about each person; text boxes highlighting careers of women who are also notable but aren’t covered by full chapters; and at the end, an annotated list providing (1) websites with programs for kids and teens on architecture and engineering; (2) great places to visit online; and (3) links to relevant professional organizations.

Evaluation: This is a truly interesting and even inspirational book. If you are a female, you will marvel at what you learn about these pathbreakers, and if you are a male, you will get insight into the distorted views of reality often promulgated by the dominant discourse.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Chicago Review Press, 2014

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6 Responses

  1. I’m reading more and more about the “women behind the men.” I’m glad they’re finally getting recognition but am miffed that it has taken so long.

  2. Sounds good… and I love the cover!

  3. It seems like there is almost always a woman behind the man. I have so much respect and gratitude towards these women who paved the way for the rest of us.

  4. I once worked with a gal who was majoring in architecture and she had such a hard time getting through the program because of it being top-heavy male. That said, that field is highly competitive as it is. I know so many male architects who became city inspectors because they could not find work.

  5. This is one of the best non-fiction books about women I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a lot!

  6. Sounds wonderful! and a great addition to all school libraries.

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