But it wasn’t until 1898 that the first professional female architect, Ethel Charles, was recognised by the Royal Institute of British Architects.
Take a closer look at the significant contribution made by women to the field of English architecture over the past 400 years.
Who was the first woman architect?
Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham
Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham (1632–1705) is usually hailed as the first known woman architect. She designed her home, the 1670s Weston Park in Staffordshire.
She also produced the earliest architectural drawings known to be by a woman, for the rebuilding of St Andrew’s church in Weston-under-Lizard.
Lady Anne Clifford
Previously, Lady Anne Clifford (1590–1676) is the first woman recorded to have had hands-on involvement in re-shaping buildings. Her earliest known work includes restoring the Church of St Michael in Appleby-in-Westmorland, Cumbria. She also designed changes to one of her family seats, Brougham Castle.
Pioneering women in architecture
Jane and Mary Parminter
Jane (1750–1811) and Mary Parminter (1767–1849) were cousins who built their rural retreat A la Ronde near Exmouth in Devon in 1798. The pair had travelled extensively across Europe, and their passion for eclectic design is reflected in the building.
The cottage’s central octagon shape is thought to have been modelled on the 6th-century basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. The site features rustic details like intricate shell and feather wall patterns and hidden grottoes.
Mary Townley (1753–1839) was a cousin and pupil of artist Sir Joshua Reynolds.
She designed several houses, including her own in 1792, Townley House Mansion in Ramsgate, where the Townley family subsequently lived and received many distinguished visitors.
Sarah Losh (1785–1853) was an expert linguist, member of the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society and friend to poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In 1839 she funded and designed the rebuilding of the Church of St Mary in Wreay, Cumbria.
Having travelled extensively, Losh based the church’s design on a Roman basilica. This simple building form contrasted with the popular English Gothic style. The inside of the church is embellished with ornate symbolic carvings, making for a unique and imaginative space.
The first women architects to be recognised
Ethel and Bessie Charles
In 1898, Ethel Charles became the first woman to enter the Royal Institute of British Architects, followed by her sister Bessie Charles in 1900.
However, like many women designers of the period, the sisters could not obtain commissions for large-scale projects that continued to be reserved for men.
As a result, they focused on domestic architecture, often commissioned by female clients and modest housing projects such as labourers’ cottages.
The Architectural Association in London began to admit women in 1917. One of the first women to study there was Elizabeth Scott (1898–1972), who paved the way for many aspiring women architects.
Scott was the great-niece of architect George Gilbert Scott (who designed St Pancras Station). She was also the second cousin of Giles Gilbert Scott (designer of Battersea Power Station).
In 1928, just four years after getting her diploma, Scott won a high-profile competition to rebuild the burnt-out Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford Upon Avon. This was a huge step forward for women in architecture.
Scott hired women on her projects and worked with the Fawcett Society to promote wider acceptance of women in professions they were not typically associated with. She disliked being labelled a ‘female architect’ rather than simply an ‘architect’.
Women architects with listed buildings
The 1930s saw a body of pioneering independent single women who were at least equal to their male counterparts. These included Elisabeth Benjamin, Mary Crowley, (Margaret) Justin Blanco White, Norah Aiton and Betty Scott.
Other women architects have been jointly credited for major projects alongside men.
Norah Aiton and Betty Scott
After meeting as students at the Architectural Association in the mid-1920s, Norah Aiton (1904–1989) and Betty Scott (1904–1983) practised together, firstly gaining commissions from their families.
In 1931 they designed the steel-framed Aiton Works in Derby, home to Aiton and Co, owned by Norah’s father. It was the first industrial building of the Modern Movement in Britain and one of the first designed by a female partnership.
Elisabeth Benjamin (1908–1999) began her training at the Architectural Association in 1927. She spent a year as a student assistant to architect Edwin Lutyens.
Benjamin designed East Wall in Buckinghamshire in 1936, an accomplished design in the modern international style of the 1930s. It’s one of only three houses she created and the best surviving example.
Alison Smithson (1928–1993) designed several buildings with her husband Peter, including the Economist Building in Piccadilly, the Garden Building at St Hilda’s College in Oxford, Smithdon High School in Norfolk, Sugden House in Watford, and buildings at the University of Bath.
Brenda Walker was the job architect for 22 Avenue Road in Leicester, a private house built in 1953–4 with Fello Atkinson as a partner in charge.
Betty Cadbury-Brown (1922–2002), with her husband H T Cadbury-Brown, designed their own home, 3 Church Walk in Aldeburgh, in 1963–4.
Sadie Speight (1906–1992) designed the 1938 house Brackenfell in Brampton, Cumbria, with her husband, Leslie Martin.
Born in Iraq in 1950, Zaha Hadid (1950–2016) studied mathematics at the American University in Beirut before moving to London in 1972 to attend the Architectural Association School.
She founded Zaha Hadid Architects in 1979, and the firm’s first major project was the Vitra Fire Station in Germany. They also designed the distinctive London Aquatics Centre, a diving and swimming facility built for the 2012 London Olympics. It is now open to the public.
In 2004, Hadid was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize (considered the Nobel Prize of Architecture). She was made a Dame in 2012 for architecture services and, in 2015, became the first and only woman to be awarded the Royal Gold Medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects.
The role of Historic England
Most of these buildings by women architects are protected as listed buildings. You can find out more about them from the National Heritage List for England.