The TCPA’s recent publication of the ‘Forgotten Pioneers: Celebrating the women of the Garden City movement’ forms part of a project that celebrates the women of the movement. It presents our initial research that has started to uncover forgotten pioneers through the history of planning that we need to celebrate. This blog is a personal reflection on the process of researching for this publication.
We began the project with a preliminary list of women whose lives and contributions we wanted to celebrate because of their involvement with the Association in its early days. But when pursuing our initial research, it was impossible to find information about them beyond the few pointers that we had. I eventually came to find the key contributions of women to the Association by reading through the TCPA’s recently digitised ‘Town & Country Planning’ journal archives. The archive became a great source of information to understand the broad context of women in the organisation, to learn about the Women’s League and the Women’s Section and the people who were involved in these groups. But the more I learnt about the role of women in the movement, the more frustrated I became as there were no records of their lives anywhere else.
While the lives of the men that contributed to the Garden City movement have been recorded on mainstream and free internet sites like Wikipedia, the lives of many of the women that we mention in our publication (and many other women in the planning profession) are omitted from the platform. Sadly, this rings true to many of the entries on the platform, leading to what some have dubbed ‘the Wikipedia gender gap’: 85% of voluntary Wikipedia editors are men and of all the biographies on Wikipedia in English, only 18.72% are about women (1). When women are featured, they often have shorter biographies focussed on the family or are cast as the assistant of their (more famous) husband. Part W, an action group of women campaigning for gender equality across the built environment, ran a workshop in 2020 to empower women to become Wikipedia editors – a good to start to improve the representation of women in mainstream sources.
Finding information about women who were born at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries was particularly challenging – and finding images of them even more so. There were a set of hurdles to overcome, like the fact that women took on the names of their husbands (2) which made it difficult to trace their lives or that the way their lives were recorded in the first place might obscure some of their achievements given the biases of the time. This forced me to take a slightly different approach. For example, obituaries (especially those published in the Town & Country Planning journal) seemed like one of the few accessible sources in which the lives and achievements of many women were actually recorded.
Through this research, I came to see that the lives of women tend to be recorded in piecemeal ways which makes it difficult to provide complete biographies and record all the achievements of the women that we mention in the publication. Consequently, is also difficult to provide a complete list of the women that were involved in the Garden City movement and New Towns history.
That is why the TCPA’s task of remembering ‘The Forgotten Pioneers’ has only just scratched the surface. In response to the launch of the publication, we were delighted to have been contacted by dozens of people highlighting the stories of the women pioneers that we had missed out in our publication. From one of our member’s aunt who was the first medical officer in Welwyn Garden City, to the women working on social reform in planning internationally (like Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky). While, as a researcher, I felt disappointed to have missed so many prominent and incredible women, I now feel heartened by the amount of interest our project has generated, and by the scope of work there is ahead of us in this field.
We are always looking to expand our work uncovering planning’s forgotten women, so if you have been as touched by this project as so many of us have been, please do consider partnering with us to take this project forward.
If you haven’t already, you can read the full publication and a find recording of the launch event here.
2: This was particularly difficult as, not only, they took their husbands surnames but often took their full names and rarely signed with their own. For instance, Mrs Victor Branford was frequently mentioned in the Town and Country Journal as a key contributor to the Association. It is not only until recently (after the completion of the publication) that I found out that she is actually Sybella Gurney, a key player in the housing co-partnership movement and author of Civic Reconstruction and the Garden City movement. An error on my end but reflects of the complexities on researching women’s lives.
The cover image of this page comes from the October 1987 edition of our journal, Town & Country Planning. Find it in our archive here.
For more information about the project, get in touch with Cova Cervilla Bordiu here.