Skip to main content

Women's School of Planning and Architecture records

Identifier: SSC-MS-00306

Scope and Contents

The Women's School of Planning and Architecture Records consist of 10.5 linear feet of audiotapes, correspondence, memorabilia, memoranda, minutes, films, photographs, publications, slides, videotapes, and other materials. They date from 1974 to 1992 with the bulk of the materials documenting the period between 1974 and 1981. The Records contain rich documentation of the founding, planning, and operation of the School. They provide a detailed account of the successes and struggles of an experimental, non-hierarchical educational institution founded at the height of the 1970s women's movement.

The intentions of the School's founders are well documented in the publications and publicity materials in Series I as well as the Coordinators' Records (Series II). Because the Coordinators were scattered geographically and thus forced to communicate primarily by mail, the written record of their work is exceptionally rich. True to the experimental and unconventional nature of the organization, information in Series II is rarely in standardized formal documents such as minutes and reports. Formal minutes exist for a relatively brief period, but other kinds of records of the work of the group, such as notes and circular letters, abound.

Nearly two-thirds of the total volume of the surviving records is materials created for or during the sessions themselves. Sensitive to the ground breaking nature of their endeavor, the Coordinators arranged for extensive written and audio visual documentation of the first WSPA session in 1975, when large portions of the session were captured on video and audiotape (available in Series III and Series IV). Included in the Records is a finished film about the 1975 session. Documentation of sessions after 1975 is less comprehensive.

Related materials in the Sophia Smith Collection can be found in the personal papers of WSPA co-founder Noel Phyllis Birkby.

Dates of Materials

  • Creation: 1974 - 2002
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1974 - 1981


Conditions Governing Access

This collection is open for research use without restriction beyond the standard terms and conditions of Smith College Special Collections.

Conditions Governing Use

To the extent that they owned copyright, the donors assigned the copyright in their works to Smith College; however, copyright in other items in this collection may be held by their respective creators. For reproductions of materials that are governed by fair use as defined under U. S. Copyright Law, no permission to cite or publish is required. For instances which may regard materials in the collection not created by the donors, researchers are responsible for determining who may hold materials' copyrights and obtaining approval from them. Researchers do not need anything further from Smith College Special Collections to move forward with their use.

Biographical / Historical

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: 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."


11.397 linear feet (22 containers)

Language of Materials



Educational program and feminist collective. The Women's School of Planning and Architecture Records provides a detailed account of the successes and struggles of an experimental, non-hierarchical educational institution founded at the height of the 1970s women's movement. Records document the School's sessions on feminist architectural planning and design. There is also rich documentation of the founding, planning, and operation of the School. Materials include correspondence; histories; photographs; extensive audio-visual material; publications; publicity and memorabilia.


This collection is organized into four series:

  1. I. General and Historical Material
  2. II. Coordinators' Records
  3. III. Sessions
  4. IV. Audio Visual Material

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The records of the Women's School of Planning and Architecture were donated to the Sophia Smith Collection by the executors of the estate of founding coordinator Noel Phyllis Birkby in 1994 and by founding coordinator Ellen Perry Berkeley in 1997. Additional materials were donated by Marie Kennedy in 2000; Susan Aitcheson, Rita Robbins, Charlotte Strem Caughey, and Sharon Sutton in 2002; and Charlotte Hitchcock in 2004-2005.

Additions to the Collection

Periodic additions to collection are expected.

Related Material

Related material can be found in the Phyllis Birkby Papers, Sophia Smith Collection.

Processing Information

Processed by Maida Goodwin, 1999.

Processing Information

Between September 2022 and February 2023, Smith College Special Collections renumbered many boxes to eliminate duplicate numbers within collections in order to improve researcher experience. The following changes were made in this collection: Accession 2005-S-0075, Box 1 renumbered as Box 19

Women's School of Planning and Architecture records
Finding Aid
Maida Goodwin
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Encoding funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Revision Statements

  • 07/26/2017: This resource was modified by the ArchivesSpace Preprocessor developed by the Harvard Library (
  • 2005-09-23: mnsss77 converted from EAD 1.0 to 2002 by v1to02-5c.xsl (sy2003-10-15).
  • 2017-07-26T17:48:23-04:00: This record was migrated from InMagic DB Textworks to ArchivesSpace.
  • 2019-05-06: Updated immediate source of acquisition note and series level scope and contents notes from S drive finding aid
  • 2021-07-09: Content description added from accession inventory

Repository Details

Part of the Sophia Smith Collection of Women's History Repository

Neilson Library
7 Neilson Drive
Northampton MA 01063