How changing gender roles are reflected in the architecture of the home

By Hailey Groo

Jul 28, 2021 | Equity, Features | 0 comments

//Molly Brown House Museum Director, Andrea Malcomb, at the historic home in Denver on July 19. Malcomb organizes all programs exhibits for people to experience throughout the year. Photo by Karson Hallaway | karsonhallaway@gmail.com

After working for centuries to free themselves from house arrest, women retreated into their homes during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, this time, their isolation and restricted movement were due to pathology, instead of patriarchy. 

In 2020, we temporarily isolated ourselves in our homes, of our own volition, to protect ourselves and others from a deadly virus. But about a century ago, that was the norm for women who rarely left the home. Women were not only unwelcomed in most public places, but also had spaces off-limits to them within their own domestic spheres of influence. 

“Domestic spaces were very much considered women’s space—women and children space,” said Kathy Corbett, a Denver-based architectural historian. “And this was especially true in the 19th century. When you think about the built environment, it’s a product of our culture, it always is. It’s like anything else; it’s like art, music, all of that. These things that we create are all products of our culture, and the built environment is no different.” 

Historic homes like the Molly Brown House Museum preserve examples of highly gendered architecture. Molly Brown used her wealth and prestige to advocate for women’s rights outside of the domestic sphere, and her preserved home is a wonderful example of the types of constraints she was working to break women free from. On July 30, the National Votes For Women Trail will place a historic marker at the Molly Brown House Museum to recognize Brown’s contribution to women’s suffrage. 

Architecture like this shows how the structures of our homes directly reflect a change in women’s rights over time. Taking a tour of the Molly Brown House Museum, now that it has reopened post-quarantine, helps illuminate the breakdown in gender roles reflected in homes today. It also puts into perspective women’s modern freedom to move within and without the home as they please. 

When Margaret Tobin, better known as Molly Brown, was born in 1867, “women were seen as gentle, delicate, and in need of protection,” said Andrea Malcomb, executive director of the Molly Brown House Museum. “They were to be a moral guide for children and husbands and the home [was to be] a safe haven from the outside world. Some women, like Margaret, did eventually, had the luxury of living as socialites, with servants to carry out their daily chores, but the vast majority of women toiled endlessly.” 

For most women in the 1900s, their work focused exclusively on the home, which kept them essentially under house arrest. It would still take many decades before progress on women’s rights would be reflected in Denver’s neighborhoods and architecture. 

As perceptions of gender roles changed over the 20th century, so did architecture. With each new wave of feminism, house floor plans became more open, the kitchen moved into more visible places within the home and the architecture stopped dividing living spaces based on the gender and age of the rooms’ occupants. Mid-century homes, like the ones in Denver’s Krisana neighborhood, display a more open floor plan, larger backyards as men became more involved in family life, and slightly less separation between the kitchen and living spaces. In 1960, men only spent about 14% of their time on childcare and housework. In 2020, men averaged about 30% of their time on childcare in two-parent households. 

“Later in the 20th century, our ideas about women in the home changed and, so, our design of homes changed,” said Rebekah Shields, a historic preservationist with Metcalf Archaeological Consultants Inc. “Households no longer have servants, so those spaces were eliminated, but women were still expected to be loving mothers and caregivers. In many post-war homes, the kitchen is oriented toward the rear of the house with a view of the backyard or an open view into the living room. This would give women, relegated to the domestic sphere, a view of their children playing outside or inside while still being able to prepare dinner for the male breadwinner.”

Today, our homes look very different from the Molly Brown House Museum. This isn’t purely due to cultural aesthetic preference—it is directly linked to a change in gender norms and patriarchal control. 

“Modern houses are really sexy,” Corbett said. “They’re very desirable in the real estate market. I think a lot of the reason for this is because, even though many of these houses are more than half a century old, they still have a lot of appeal to people who are living the kinds of lives where they don’t want to have the separation of space. This is one of the ways that you really see gendered space become less of a thing in architecture.”

This breakdown between gendered spaces continues in modern architecture with open floor plans and ADA-accessible design. Today’s architecture and the way we choose to renovate older buildings foster a sense of inclusion and unity for all genders, alongside people with disabilities. Most older homes have been unknowingly adapted to modern gender norms and family structures through renovations to suit their lifestyles. 

Even historic homes like the Molly Brown House Museum worked with historic preservationists to install a wheelchair-accessible entrance and provide educational experiences suited for people of all abilities. According to Malcomb, historic architecture across Denver is being adapted to increase accessibility. The museum installed a LULA lift system which allows guests to access all exhibit levels. In addition to addressing physical limitations, staff added an access area with information and objects for those who can’t visit the three floors of the museum.  

The Molly Brown House Museum is a prime example of how past architecture wasn’t designed to accommodate women and people with disabilities. Women were shuttered in posterior kitchens and upstairs, in private spaces. People with physical and mental disabilities lived in dangerous, multi-storied, incompatible homes that often required assistance to navigate.

During the pandemic, the luxury of leaving home became a stark reality for people across the globe. We temporarily stayed indoors, only visited with a small circle of trusted friends, and waved at neighbors from the porch. Unknowingly, we stepped into the reality of women in the early-to-mid 1900s. However, most of us had the benefit of interior design not intended to box us into antiquated gender roles. 

“As gender roles become less relegated in the public sphere, they become less relegated in the private sphere,” said Corbett. “These places that we’ve created are a product of our culture and as women and men’s roles have become less stratified and stringently defined, gender roles are less assigned in our minds in the places that we live in.”




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