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'Maiden' - Breaking the mould

[Tarcy Edwards]: My mom always told me, 'If you don't like the way the world looks, change it,' she says. 'So I thought, OK, I will.'

Maiden. 2019. Directed by A. Holmes.

The documentary tells the story of an all-female crew that entered the earth's biggest open sea sailing competition in 1989. Although open sailboat racing was male-dominated sport at the time, Tracy Edwards, the skipper of Maiden, managed to bypass intense backlash received from both an unforgiving media and the men dominating the world of yacht-racing at the time. The general consensus was that all traits and skills essential to becoming a worthy competitor, among which sheer physical power, mental strength, and the ability to think strategically stood in blatant contradiction with the very nature of a woman.

During an interview, Edwards describes sailing as 'one of the last bastions of patriarchy,' and I cannot help but immediately draw the comparison to the professional climate of architecture. At the center of all skepticism that Maiden's crew faced, stood the contradiction between the canonical image of the sailor as the driven, capable, visionary male and the physical and mental 'softness' of the female body. The connection is easy to make. In her article, "The good architect and the bad parent: on the formation and disruption of a canonical image," Despina Stratigakos sheds some light on how the image of the architect was historically constructed and how the female body and brain have been subjected to scrutiny ever since women began aspiring to join the profession. The idealized image of the architect, primarily associated with the qualities of the male body as 'healthy, strong and athletic,' was in stark opposition to that of the 'female and maternal.'

Throughout history, many voices rushed to highlight the reasons women were not biologically and intellectually fit to lend themselves to the job of designing buildings, with some claiming that women who 'misappropriated creative energies that rightly belonged to men, destroyed their femininity' (Stratigakos, 2008). A New York Times article titled "I Am Not the Decorator: Female Architects Speak Out" discusses the women's condition in architectural practice. One of the most potent comments comes from Yen Ha, one of the principles at Front Studio Architects, who discusses the lack of professional credibility she continues to face in the industry:

"We absolutely face obstacles. Every single day. It's still largely a white, male-dominated field, and seeing a woman at the job site or in a big meeting with developers is not that common. Every single day I have to remind someone that I am, in fact, an architect. And sometimes not just an architect, but the architect. I'm not white, wearing black, funky glasses, tall or male. I'm none of the preconceptions of what an architect might be, and that means that every time I introduce myself as an architect, I have to push through the initial assumptions.."

A study carried out in London in 2013, focused on uncovering the reasons why professional and managerial mothers choose to opt-out of their careers. Unsurprisingly, it revealed one of the main challenges mothers face is that of blending into the workplace - "unless mothers mimic successful men, they do not look the part for success in their organizations."

Trying to stay professionally afloat while performing an ongoing balancing act with their personal lives, women keep facing one of the industry's most damaging preconceptions: being a woman and an architect or a mother and an architect for that matter, are mutually exclusive identities which cannot successfully co-exist.

Conversely, it's impossible to overlook Hollywood's influence in carving out the public's perception of the architect's persona as a rational, sophisticated, creatively consumed, white male. While the discussion on the topic of the architect's representation in cinema is broad, I would like to touch upon one of the first movies experimenting with the creation of an on-screen character embodying a female architect. The 1937 comedy 'Woman Chasees Man' focuses on architect Virginia Travis - played by Miriam Hopkins, who delivers a passionate speech to businessman B.J. Nolan as he ponders whether he should give her the commission to build his latest housing project:

"I know what you're thinking that I'm a girl. Yes, Mr. Nolan, but I have a man's courage, a man's vision, a man's attack... For seven years, I studied like a man, researched like a man. There is nothing feminine about my mind. Seven years ago I gave up a perfectly nice engagement with a charming, wealthy old man because I chose a practical career. I left him at the church to become an architect and today I'm ready and he's dead."

As historian Jeanine Basinger points out in her book 'A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women', Virginia takes pride in her efforts to adhere to "a man's vision," and the film draws out its comedic undertones precisely from her chaotic, impulsive, eccentric personality. Most likely, such representations received little attention at the time and were brought on screen purely because the career-hungry woman and even more so, an upcoming of a new species – the woman architect, intrigued rather than inspired.

So how come all these years later, women still use the same old mechanism to cope with male-dominated work environments? Continuing to act like 'one of the boys' and knowingly accepting masculine cultural norms does nothing else but contributes to the entrenchment and normalization of this culture. This exercise of emulating men on a daily basis is not only exhausting, but it pushes at the bottom of the pile the very qualities that contribute to creating a genuinely intellectually-diverse workforce. Women are natural mediators and strategists, excellent communicators, have an innate ability to view problems holistically, and most importantly, they make great leaders because they inspire and motivate other women to succeed.

Being more estrogen-led, women are natural team-players and will relentlessly work together to reach and end a goal. And this is why the story of Maiden remains so compelling decades later. Interestingly, the crew did not feel the need to mimic the attitude and strategy of their male counterparts to look the part for success. Instead, they kept their goal in focus and created visual moments where they played on their femininity, finishing the leg in Florida in swimsuits, having shaved their legs, and done their hair.

In an interview part of the BUILD Series, Tracy Edwards reflects on the episodes of overt sexism her crew had to face and candidly demystifies the self-constructed, heroic image of sailing as a sport:

"I realized this is not just about me navigating, this is about proving that women can race around the world. Because I raced around and it's not that hard - it was like to world's best-kept secret, it wasn't as hard as the guys made it out to be. When we used to sail into port, we didn't want to be male clones, and I think a lot of times, women have to become quite male to get to the top. […] We looked like we had sailed around the corner."

The film celebrates the defiant spirit of all women overcoming gender bias and side-lining in an insular community, proving that they are anything but an unskilled, weak link. As architects and as women, we are in clear need of role-models, and this is an aspect that should be addressed early on, starting with the curricula universities present to their students to the tenure of women in academia. Furthermore, as architects becoming mothers, we are often nervous the image we have worked so hard to construct in order to have our voices heard will fade into the background. While the complexities of addressing such issues in both practice and academia are evident, perhaps it's on us to reveal our own stories and celebrate those of others both within the field of architecture and beyond.


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