Why do some successful women decline to be associated with feminism? Part 2 of Susana Torre’s lecture, Feminism and Architecture, explores how tokenism operates to reinforce entrenched values.

Susana Torre presenting at the Architectural League NY.

Susana Torre presenting at the Architectural League NY.

Note: This is the second part of a remarkable lecture delivered by Susana Torre in New York, and co-sponsored by The New School University and The Architectural League of New York. It is published here with the generous permission of Ms Torre. Watch the video of the lecture here or read Part 1: Feminist Contributions and Part 3: What Now?


In the 1970s architectural offices and schools of architecture began (very slowly) to hire women. However, the conditions of hiring were rather peculiar, as illustrated by this personal anecdote. Shortly after the opening of the “Women in Architecture” exhibition I received a phone call from the Dean of a prestigious Ivy League school of architecture, offering me a position as an adjunct design studio faculty. When I called a colleague – the second woman to teach design in that university – to tell her that there would be two of us teaching studio, she said that the previous day she had been told that her contract would not be renewed. This was not because the dean was dissatisfied with her performance, he said, but because he needed “to give another woman a chance”. This was my first introduction to how women were to be given access, on a one-at-a-time basis, to the opportunities, benefits, and privileges enjoyed by men in academia and the profession.

This phenomenon, known as tokenism, is not restricted to the treatment of women, but affects all minorities, starting in the 1950s with the integration of Jews and later, African Americans in predominantly WASP institutions. There is extensive sociological and psychological literature on the subject of tokens, starting with Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s pioneer study, where she observed that, because they are viewed as representatives of a group, tokens find their individuality compromised. To recover individuality, they must prove to themselves and to others that they are an exception to the stereotype. That is why some women insist that they are “architects”, not “women architects”.

In the Wikipedia page about tokenism there is a Woody Allen routine from 1964 about his being hired by an advertising agency that illustrates this problem: He says the agency

“wanted a man to come in, and they pay ninety-five dollars a week, to sit in their office, and to look Jewish. They wanted to prove to the outside world that they would hire minority groups, y’know? So I was the one they hired. I was the show Jew at the agency. I tried to look Jewish desperately. I used to read my memos from right to left all the time. They fired me finally, because I took off too many Jewish holidays.”

Whether selected because of their inoffensive, safe personalities or because their difference is expressed in an exotic and glamorous way, tokens are highly visible and serve to create the appearance of inclusiveness. They are subject to a higher scrutiny by their male colleagues and superiors; and those with weaker performances are quickly replaced or more harshly admonished. Kanter argued that the problems of tokenism would whither away as the number of women in a particular workplace increased, but she did not anticipate the issues involved in the token’s adoption of the dominant institutional culture in order to survive or succeed. In theory, members of disadvantaged groups that are selected as tokens could contribute to social change if they used their higher status and privileges to aid members of their group. In practice, research by social scientists and psychologists has consistently found that tokens are unlikely “to support collective and non-normative behaviours of members of the disadvantaged group.”

Because they can be “easily co-opted into the advantaged group,” tokens tend to identify with the entrenched institutional values that want to maintain access under tight control. Thus tokens “serve as impediments to larger social change,” instead of “paving the way for increased representation of the disadvantaged group.” That is why women who have enjoyed the privileges of admission into the higher echelons of academia and the profession can claim, truthfully, that they have never experienced discrimination, and that advancement in an architectural career is “a personal thing,” not related to gender.

It may also explain why many women in architecture have supported women’s advancement in the profession as a principle, but have rejected being associated with feminism. Institutional and professional culture are stronger than individual dissension and consequently women have not challenged certain institutional values, even when they are inimical to women’s own best interests. In other words: “We have met the enemy, and (s)he is us!”

Read part 1 and part 3 of Susana Torre’s lecture. And remember you can watch the full lecture at the Architectural League NY.