March 7, 2024

Women Deserve More Than Three Percent

A New Model for Gender Equitable Designation in Los Angeles

Of the nearly 1,300 places in Los Angeles designated as Historic-Cultural Monuments (HCM)—LA’s version of local landmarks—only 3 percent of them represent women’s history.

I remember the first time I heard this shocking statistic from Nellie Scott, the executive director of the Corita Art Center, in Los Angeles, California. 3 percent? That must be a mistake.

Women’s history is quite literally everywhere, particularly in Los Angeles. Julia Morgan was a prolific architect in California. Biddy Mason is considered an early and entrepreneurial California real estate developer. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz revolutionized how television was made and invented the concept of the “rerun.” Second wave feminism and the feminist and lesbian art movements thrived in Southern California at CalArts. Esther Wong made her “Madame Wong’s” bar in Chinatown into an epicenter of the punk and new wave scene.

This year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Where Women Made History initiative, in partnership with the Los Angeles Conservancy are working on a solution.

An exterior photo of Corita's studio from the 1960s.

photo by: Corita Art Center

Exterior of the Corita Kent Studio in Los Angeles, California.

The Full Scale of the Problem

It turns out that 3 percent was a generous estimate, the reality is closer to 2 percent and unfortunately, Los Angeles is not unusual. Only 4 percent of our country’s National Historic Landmarks are designated for recognition of women and women’s achievements, and it has been stuck at that low level of representation for almost 50 years. The degree to which women’s history is acknowledged on the National Register of Historic Places is even less clear, because associations with women’s history and achievement are not even tracked.

These low figures reflect the system that we in the preservation movement created for designation at the national and the local level. This system privileges the physicality of a structure or site over associations with the events, histories, and people who inhabited and activated these places. By giving more weight to the integrity of the design, materials, and details than to the stories these places tell and the meaning they hold, we consistently favor style over substance.

This was the challenge Nellie Scott faced with the designation of Sister Mary Corita’s studio, which a developer planned to demolish for a parking lot. The national significance of Sister Corita story was undeniable, including the many years of activism, education, and artistic creativity she led at her studio. But the simple, one-story concrete block commercial building had been modified by subsequent owners and the Office of Historic Resources recommended against designation on the grounds that the building lacked sufficient integrity. It took an extraordinary outpouring of vocal support from nearly 100 artists, historians, and advocates across the country to challenge that argument and convince the Cultural Heritage Commission to approve designation of Corita’s studio as an HCM.

When it’s this onerous to achieve formal recognition for a place clearly connected to an internationally acclaimed female artist, is it any surprise that the history of less famous women is so rarely recognized? Having served as chair of a local preservation commission, I realize there’s a common misperception that it’s more “objective” to evaluate a place based on its physical characteristics and condition, rather than dig deeply into the historical record to reveal the stories of women and other groups that are consistently excluded, the majority of whom were rarely mentioned in contemporary media sources and continue to get minimal coverage in many current history texts.

This is particularly true for women of color, Indigenous women, and women who identified as lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. Because women’s histories can be exceptionally—and often intentionally—difficult to find, it makes them easier to ignore. And that is how we find ourselves at only 3 percent representation.

A New Model for Gender-Equitable Designation

As manager of the National Trust's Where Women Made History (WWMH) initiative, I’m keenly aware that how we choose to recognize and communicate about our national heritage at historic places has real and profound implications. The pervasive lack of women’s representation across all types of landmarks means that women, girls, and people who identify as female do not see themselves reflected in the history they encounter at historic places. This must change and we are committed to leading that change.

WWMH is planning an unprecedented new project in Los Angeles to address the bias in the designation process by creating a new model for more gender-equitable historic designation. We’ll be tackling this groundbreaking work in partnership with the Los Angeles Conservancy, who has been at the forefront of efforts to protect places of women’s achievement and resistance like Sister Mary Corita’s studio, the LA Women’s Building, the Crenshaw Women’s Center, and most recently, the home of Marilyn Monroe .

Adrian Scott Fine, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Conservancy said, “when we tell stories about Los Angeles and women, it is fundamentally more real and tangible when we root them in the physical places that help illustrate their lives, contributions, and connection to this city. Acknowledgement is empowerment, which is why we want to ensure more places are designated for women’s contributions.”

Together with supportive local agencies, community groups, researchers, advocates, educators, filmmakers, and many others, WWMH and the LA Conservancy will nominate 15 new HCMs, bringing to light some of the overlooked histories, stories, and accomplishments of the diverse women who shaped Los Angeles. In doing so, we will invent and test new processes and policies that will make it easier to designate sites of women’s history (for instance, designing, an amendment process for adding women’s history into the approximately 1,300 existing HCM nominations), and tracking metrics against long-term goals for increasing gender equity and women’s representation in future nominations.

We’re excited about the prospect starting this project in fall of this year with graduate students in the USC School Architecture and Heritage Conservation program, who will be directly involved in every step of the designation process and will shape the work with their own perspective and priorities as the next generation of preservationists.

Designation is Only the Beginning

If this ambitious project resulted in new HCMs of under-appreciated sites of diverse women’s history, that alone would be a worthwhile endeavor. It would be 15 places of women’s achievement that are recognized and protected, and it would move the needle—albeit very slightly—to increase women’s representation among Los Angeles’ landmarks. It’s not enough. If we want to change the status quo and create a new gender-equitable model for other cities and the preservation movement, the designations must be the beginning of our work, not the end.

The former Crenshaw Women's Center as it looked in 2021.

photo by: Adrian Scott Fine/Los Angeles Conservancy

The former Crenshaw Women's Center as it looked in 2021.

In addition to generating new research, HCMs, and procedures, WWMH and the LA Conservancy intend to help build new forms of preservation “infrastructure” that will change not only how people think about Historic Cultural Monuments, but the potential impact of historic preservation in general:

  • New Tools: Create an online resource to assist with research for future women-centered designations; a new process for amending existing HCMs to incorporating the women’s history that was overlooked; and an initial database of hundreds of sites across Los Angeles that have the potential to designated for their connections to diverse women’s history
  • Public Programming and Interpretation: Expand the public’s appreciation of diverse women’s histories and impact in Los Angeles with short video documentaries and oral histories related to each of the 15 designated sites; and create a new companion series of LA Conservancy public programs, tours, and field trips for adults and students centered on places of women’s history.
  • Student Lesson Plans: Produce 4-5 new virtual lesson plans for students that will meet California State Standards, which will introduce middle and high school students to their local female history makers, and draw on the research, primary resources, oral histories, and content from the HCMs.
  • Plans for the Future: We realize that making significant progress toward gender equity in designations is a long-term project and it will require a commitment on the part of the City of Los Angeles and a wide range of local partners. To facilitate this, we will outline a set of recommendations for future designations, additional research, new or expanded context statements, additional interpretative and educational materials, and potential funding sources that could support this critical work.

Our goal is to encourage wider adoption of this approach and incite fundamental change in the designation protocols across the country, which is why we are committed to making all products and models from this project publicly accessible online to be shared with local commissions and staff, city officials, preservation organizations, the National Alliance of Preservation Commissions, and many others.

If we hope to tell an honest and accurate national story, we have a responsibility as a national preservation organization to acknowledge the presence of women, girls and people who identify as female at virtually every historic place. Three percent representation is not good enough. It’s time we changed that.

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Chris Morris is a senior director of preservation programs and leader of the Where Women Made History initiative.

Every place has a woman's story to tell. Through Where Women Made History, we are identifying, honoring, and elevating places across the country where women have changed their communities and the world.

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