Considering History: Sophia Hayden and the Hidden Cost of American Sexism

This series by American studies professor Ben Railton explores the connections between America’s past and present. 

Late last week, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren ended her bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, leaving the primary without any of the ground-breakingly high number of women who had once been part of its slate of candidates. (Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard remains in the race but has received only two delegates and has never polled above low single digits.) While Warren’s campaign and exit were both influenced by a number of factors, her departure has occasioned numerous commentaries on the continued, frustrating reality (particularly when compared to most other nations in the world) that the United States has never elected a woman to its highest political office — a reality particularly worth engaging on the occasion of Women’s History Month.

Photo portrait of Sophia Hayden
Sophia Hayden (Wikimedia Commons)

The presidency is a strikingly visible element of American society, making the historic and continued absence of women likewise quite apparent. But that absence also reflects a far wider and deeper, and yet often more difficult to spot, aspect of our collective histories: the ways in which sexism and the glass ceiling have driven so many of our most talented and impressive women out of their chosen professions, leaving our entire society profoundly diminished as a result. Few American figures and stories encapsulate that hidden cost of sexism better than the architect Sophia Hayden Bennett (1868-1953).

Sophia Hayden holding a T-square ruler
Hayden in 1888 when she was an architecture student at MIT (Wikimedia Commons)

Hayden was born in Santiago, Chile, to a Chilean mother (Elezena Fernandez) and an American father (George Hayden), a dentist who had moved to Chile from his native Boston a few years earlier. When she was six, her parents sent her back to the Boston area by herself, to live with her grandparents in Jamaica Plain and attend school. While studying at West Roxbury High School she became interested in architecture, and she would go on to attend MIT, graduating in 1890 as one of the first two female graduates of a collegiate architecture program in American history (her classmate, Lois Lilley Howe, with whom Hayden shared a drafting room at MIT, was the second).

Despite that prestigious degree, Hayden was unable to find an apprentice position at any local architecture firms and took a job teaching mechanical drawing at the Eliot School, a vocational grammar school in Boston. But less than a year later she learned of a strikingly unique new opportunity: the chance to design the Woman’s Building, one of the planned exhibition halls for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. After extensive negotiation, women’s rights groups had convinced the exposition directors to create a Board of Lady Managers comprised entirely of women, and in February 1891 that board, headed by the socialite and activist Bertha Honoré Palmer, announced a competition for the Woman’s Building design, open only to female architects.

Illustrated portraits of women from the Board of Lady Managers
The Board of Lady Managers with Board Chair Bertha Honoré Palmer in the top middle photograph (Wikimedia Commons)

The competition’s $1000 prize/commission was significantly less than what was offered to male architects for the exposition’s other buildings, and so Louise Blanchard Bethune, considered the first professional female architect in America, refused to submit a concept. But Hayden did submit, and out of the 13 proposed designs it was her innovative concept, based in part on concepts from Italian Renaissance classicism, that the Board (along with Chief of Construction Daniel Burnham) selected as the winner. She traveled to Chicago to begin work on turning that design into construction plans as quickly as possible, as construction needed to begin in the summer of 1891 to be ready for the exposition’s May 1893 opening.

Illustration of the Woman's Building
The Woman’s Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition (Wikimedia Commons)

That hugely expedited timeline was only one of many challenges that Hayden would face over the next two years. Despite having chosen Hayden’s design, the Board of Lady Managers identified a number of perceived shortcomings and requested many changes, including the addition of an entirely new third story, which required Hayden to overhaul many other aspects as well. Moreover, Board Chair Palmer decided to take control of the building’s interior design away from Hayden entirely after the architect resisted some of the Board’s other substantial proposed changes. Hayden managed to respond to, complete, and work around such extraordinary requests within that very tight schedule and on budget to boot, and the Women’s Building was formally introduced at the exposition’s October 21, 1892, dedication ceremony. But shortly after, it was reported that Hayden suffered a possible nervous breakdown (in some reports referred to as “melancholia”) in Burnham’s office, and she was confined to a “rest home” for months in order to recover.

It’s impossible to know precisely the role that Hayden’s gender played in all those developments, although it’s certainly important to note that such medical diagnoses and conditions themselves were hugely gendered in the late 19th century (as illustrated by the long history of the illness known as “hysteria,” as well as related contexts like physician S. Weir Mitchell’s popular “rest cure” for women and the depiction of its destructive effects in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s autobiographical short story “The Yellow Wallpaper”). Moreover, many of the prominent responses to her design were overtly limited by narratives of gender, as illustrated by architect and critic Henry van Brunt’s argument (as part of a long series entitled “Architecture at the World’s Columbian Exposition”) that the building seemed “rather lyric than epic in character, and [that] it takes its proper place on the Exposition grounds with a certain modest grace of manner not inappropriate to its uses and to its authorship.”

Although Hayden was “cured” in time to leave the rest home and attend the exposition before its November 1893 closing (after which the Women’s Building, like most of the exposition’s structures, was demolished), she would as far as we know never design another building. An editorial in the journal American Architect lamented that fate while managing to reinforce sexist narratives at the same time, writing, “Miss Hayden has been victimized by her fellow-women. The unkind strain would have been the same had the work been as unwisely imposed upon a masculine beginner.” Hayden returned to the Boston area, eventually marrying local painter William Bennett in May 1900. Their wedding announcement in the Boston Daily Advertiser noted that “both are highly esteemed and respected . . . versatile as well as talented,” but again as far as we know Hayden never again publicly employed her prodigious talents, living her remaining six decades as a private person in their Winthrop, MA home.

What might American architecture, America’s cities, American society have looked like if Sophia Hayden had continued to design buildings? What would American history look like if we had elected a woman president by now (or if women had received the vote before 1920, for another example)? Such questions remain painfully hypothetical and unknowable, reflecting a collective loss that parallels the individual and personal costs of sexism so embodied by a figure like Sophia Hayden.

Featured image: The 24 female MIT students in 1888. Sophia Hayden is in the front row, far left. (MIT Museum)