Women have often had to fight for public facilities in cities. City councils erected public urinals for men in the 1860s, but women’s toilets were built only after groups like the Women’s Political League demanded them. Even then, women’s facilities were constructed in parks and at beaches rather than downtown. Deputations had to descend on councils before it was accepted that women had to have public conveniences in order to enjoy the full rights of citizens in the city.
By the 1920s many women’s toilets had evolved into rest rooms, places where women could also warm their babies’ bottles and leave luggage while in town. Some even sold cups of tea or cocoa. Mothers used the facilities during the day, and shop and office girls were the main evening patrons. For twopence they could hire a towel and bar of soap and use the dressing room to prepare for a night on the town.
While public bars were universally male spaces, some pubs catered for women by opening escorts (or lounge) bars, where women were usually escorted by a male companion. These were intended as places where men and women would drink together in equal numbers. But strong cultural sanctions about women drinking in public – which lasted until the late 20th century – meant escorts bars were predominantly patronised by men.
From the 1890s wealthy women bought or leased city premises and established women’s clubs. In these urban sanctuaries women could socialise outside of their family units, join play-reading circles, and attend lectures. Children and men were allowed into the ‘strangers’ room’ of clubs, but no further. By 1925, women’s clubs in New Zealand cities had a combined membership of 5,000.
Women’s clubs were less important after 1945, but public acceptance of women’s place in the city was still not secure. This was especially true for lesbians, who congregated in bars and cafés that were known to be tolerant, such as the bistro bar in Wellington’s Royal Oak Tavern. From the late 1970s women-only dances and clubs provided a place for lesbians – and other women – to socialise.
Department stores were founded in the 1880s. As well as providing many women with jobs behind the counters and in management, the stores were designed as modern feminine spaces, full of the latest international fashions and trends. Rest rooms were provided, and top-floor tearooms meant that, for once, mother did not have to cook lunch. By the 1960s suburban shopping malls were attracting female consumers, though high-end retail remained in its inner-city home.
Movie theatres also created a welcoming space for women in the city. In the evenings they were often escorted by their boyfriends and husbands, but weekday matinées were aimed at mothers. In the 1920s Dunedin’s Regent Theatre provided a crèche so that mothers could enjoy films in peace. In the early 2000s ‘babes in arms’ movie sessions encouraged mothers to bring their young children into the theatre at special daytime screenings.
Decline of women-only spaces
In 2009 there were few exclusively female spaces left in cities. Rest rooms remained well utilised, although the trend was towards unisex public toilets. One area of growth was women-only gyms. These were popular with women who felt uncomfortable exercising in front of men, usually for modesty reasons or to avoid male eyes.