A couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog post about Mary Colter and the Desert View Watchtower. I talked about how great the building is and how much I could have learned simply by studying it rather than earning the degrees and working at the firms that I did.
Although I still I stand by the basic thesis of that post (that the Desert View Watchtower is a really great building that has a lot to teach a young architect) a colleague of mine pointed out that the post was written from a place where the existence of choice was assumed: I could choose to go to architecture school, I could choose to work at the firms that I did or I could choose to do none of those things and instead hang out on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.
The reality is that not all people are afforded those same choices: Mary Colter certainly was not.
Born in 1869 her life was closely circumscribed by the prevailing societal norms of the day. In the 1880s there was no real mechanism for a woman to receive formal training as an architect. Instead she went to art school and eventually "backed" her into to the profession. She was ultimately able to do the work she was able to do because of her amazing talent but also because she was fortunate to find a one-in-a-million patron in the form of Fred Harvey who had the resources and the open-mindedness to give her talent the freedom to flourish.
Her career was exceptional not only because of the quality of the work it produced but also because it existed at all.
As a point of comparison, Frank Lloyd Wright was born just a couple of years before Colter in 1867. He had the freedom to go to architecture school (and to subsequently drop out). He had the freedom to work for Louis Sullivan, one of the leading architects of the day (and to later be fired by him). He had the freedom to choose clients and build the career he wanted for himself. These were all choices Colter simply did not have. Indeed they were choices the women who worked for Wright did not have.
The goal here isn't to compare Colter and Wright in terms of talent or influence. Rather the point is that these two architects were given radically different opportunities based solely on weather or not they happened to be born with a Y chromosome.