Cover Girls: Women, Advertising, and Architecture

Curated by Marieke Gruwel
Winnipeg Architecture Foundation

Where Are the Women Architects?

This is a question that feminist historians have been grappling with since the 1970s. The result is an impressive collection of scholarship exploring women’s participation in the formation of the built environment. And yet, the continued exclusion of women in dominant architectural histories and the current climate of the profession, both in Canada and elsewhere, force us to continue to reflect on that question.

This exhibition does that by looking at the ways women were depicted in advertisements that appeared in Canadian architectural magazines and journals published between 1950 and 1975. By examining this visual imagery, we can better understand how the architectural profession perceived women. The print advertisements you will encounter in this exhibition may not appear to be as explicitly sexist as the advertisements we know from this period, but they communicate both subtle and not-so-subtle messages about a woman’s place within the profession. Viewing these advertisements, one thing is made clear: men are the architects, designers, and builders, while women are relegated to performing traditionally “feminine” tasks, or their bodies used only to sell products.

Today, women are entering the architectural profession in higher numbers. In Canada, women make up more than half the graduates of architectural master’s programmes, but still obtain only 29 per cent of the jobs in the field. However, it is crucial to note that there are still many women, particularly Indigenous women, women of colour, and women with disabilities, whose voices are even less prevalent within the profession.

Women in the Architectural Profession in Canada

In her brief history of women architects in Canada, Blanche Lemco van Ginkel—an early registered architect herself—claimed that women entered the architectural profession “very slowly and with great difficulty.” In 1914, Alice Charlotte Malhiot became the first woman to graduate from an architecture school in Canada. And yet, more than forty years later, women still accounted for only 1.2 per cent of registered architects in Canada; the number climbed to 11.5 per cent, still low, by the early 1990s.

This in no way implies that women did not make important contributions to the built environment during the twentieth century—they did, and in great numbers. However, they often had to make these contributions from the periphery, outside the limitations of professional organisations and often without the title of ‘registered architect’.

The following are images of just some of the women who worked in the architectural profession in Manitoba, some of whom never registered with the Manitoba Association of Architects. While their contributions have been largely erased from public knowledge, their work made a lasting mark on Manitoba’s architectural landscape that demands recognition.

Evelyn Blankstein. GBR fonds, Winnipeg Architecture Foundation
Elizabeth Pilcher. GBR fonds, Winnipeg Architecture Foundation
Joan Harland. Winnipeg Architecture Foundation
GBR offices. GBR fonds, Winnipeg Architecture Foundation
Elizabeth Lord. Hugh Allan fonds, University of Manitoba Archives and Special Collections

Architecture—It's a Man's World

The main intent of this exhibition is to explore depictions of women in advertisements. However, the glaring omission of women in many of the ads can tell us just as much, if not more, about how the architectural profession perceived women. Having consulted hundreds of publications and finding few exceptions, the question Where Are the Women Architects? is increasingly pertinent. The complete absence of women as architects, designers, and construction workers is troubling.

This series of ads by Pilkington, published in order on subsequent pages, depicts three phases that lead to the realisation of a building. In every phase, it is only men who are involved. These ads, ever so subtly, tell the readership of Canadian Architect that architecture is a male profession.

Canadian Architect, 1970
Canadian Architect, 1970
Canadian Architect, 1970

At first glance, this Atlas Stainless Steels ad can be read as comical and playful. However, when read with the accompanying text, it tells us much more about a woman’s perceived role in the construction and maintenance of a building. The text clearly communicates that women are the custodians of buildings, tasked with maintaining their cleanliness. It is a role they should take pride in doing, exemplified by Effie’s smile and the claim that she refers to the building as her own. Yet, as the ad so bluntly clarifies, it is the man—the architect—that “created” the building, and it is he who made the building so easy for Effie to maintain.

RAIC Journal, 1961

From the magazines and journals consulted, the ads below by Sargent provide the only instance of a woman depicted as participating in the architectural profession. Dressed well and standing tall, the woman is shown holding architectural plans. Still, it is unclear what role she plays—is she an architect, a secretary, or perhaps an interior designer? Even if she is an architect, the choice of terminology used in the ad—including “pamper your design fancy” and “the newest fashion”—communicates a perceived difference between the abilities of women and men. Women were valued for having good taste, an innate quality that was linked to femininity and acted in direct opposition to men, who were defined by their intellect and reason.

RAIC Journal, 1962
RAIC Journal, 1962
RAIC Journal, 1963

Women and the Home

In the Western world, women’s work has long been associated with the domestic sphere, where women were expected to act as caretakers of both their homes and families. In the twentieth century, debate grew about women’s roles as they entered the paid labour-force in higher numbers. Canadian print media participated in these discussions. Some articles claimed that women were failing in the workforce while others expressed worry that working women were a threat to both men and the nuclear family.

Even as it became increasingly acceptable for women to work in certain professions, their primary duty was to care for their homes and families. This message was communicated often in advertisements.

RAIC Journal, 1960
RAIC Journal, 1962
RAIC Journal, 1962

In this 1960 advertisement, a woman is depicted looking after children while she talks to a man, presumably her husband, who is at the office. This ad is a clear depiction of the ideal nuclear family performing their appropriate roles.

RAIC Journal, 1960

Ads that depict women’s work in the home often advertise more than just a product—they also sell the possibility of acquiring leisure time. Products geared to women were designed to make housework less labour-intensive and were advertised under the guise of convenience. But one must ask, convenient for whom? With the widespread use of washing machines, microwaves, and even freezers, women were expected to perform work at any given time. Instead of having a set day for washing the clothes or a set time for feeding the family, women were constantly on call. The draperies in this ad may seem like they would make life easier for women, but in reality, they contribute to the increased expectations that were placed on women.

RAIC Journal, 1963

Women in the Workforce

In post-war Canada, women were entering the paid workforce in higher numbers. In 1941, women accounted for 20 per cent of the labour-force, the number climbing to 30 per cent by 1961 and nearly 40 per cent by 1971. Many women, based on responses from surveys conducted by the federal Women’s Bureau, reported that they needed to join the workforce out of economic necessity. Nevertheless, many still felt the need to apologise for working outside of the home.

What was deemed “acceptable” work for women was largely an extension of the role they were expected to perform in the home. As a general rule, women did not compete in the same labour markets as men. Women were supposed to work as teachers, nurses, and clerks. These occupations offered women a way to enter the workforce and bring in an income, but still adhered to patriarchal constructions of what was deemed “appropriate” work for women.

Canadian Architect, 1960
RAIC Journal, 1960
RAIC Journal, 1960
Canadian Architect, 1975
Canadian Architect, 1966
RAIC Journal, 1961

Women and Hygiene

Advertisements in architectural magazines and journals do not sell hygiene products, but they exist within a tradition of women being told they must, under all circumstances, keep themselves clean.

Ads selling appliances for bathrooms often featured women. Men do not appear in these types of ads, communicating that maintaining personal hygiene is a concern mainly for women. Through this messaging the ads set a standard of beauty and cleanliness to which women must adhere, but also imply that women are vain.

Canadian Architect, 1975
Canadian Architect, 1974
RAIC Journal, 1964
RAIC Journal, 1966

Women were required to keep more than just their bodies clean. In fact, they were responsible for maintaining all modern standards of hygiene in the home. Yet, as demonstrated in this Johns-Manville ad, when it came to anything other than using cleaning products, women required the help of a man. This ad communicates that it was the man who designed the building and chose the proper building materials. He makes it possible for women to easily conduct their work.

Canadian Architect, 1968

Sex Sells

It is no secret that the advertising industry has a long history of sexualising and objectifying women’s bodies. Advertisements that appeared in architectural publications are no exception.

Canadian Architect, 1973
RAIC Journal, 1966
RAIC Journal, 1960
RAIC Journal, 1964
RAIC Journal, 1960

Where Are We Now?

Focusing on the portrayals of men and women in advertising, a 2016 survey commissioned by Advertising Standards Canada (ASC) found that less than half of respondents felt that advertising has become less sexist than it was a decade ago. Notably, 62 per cent of respondents claimed to have seen at least some ads that were sexist towards women. The most cited examples of this sexism point to the portrayal of unrealistic bodies, as well as women being oversexualised, objectified, and represented solely in traditionally “feminine” roles.

Today, one can flip through several issues of Canadian Architect without finding any bodies depicted in its advertisements. Yet, when there are bodies, the sexism is still there. Upon opening a 2018 issue of Canadian Architect, the reader is encountered with an advertisement on the inside cover. The focus of the ad is a woman in a black dress, standing in a bathroom. On the adjacent page is the table of contents featuring a picture of two men in front of a building model, with the list of articles included in the issue underneath. Of the authors listed, not one is a woman.

Canadian Architect, 2018