Friday, March 23, 2012

The Tearoom

Six Girls and The Tea Room (1907)
The Tearoom

Location: Especially common in Great Britain, but seen in other English speaking countries as well

Opened/Closed: Heyday was in the late 19th century, early 20th century

I have long believed that owning and/or managing actual physical public space for women by women was somehow of central importance to our liberation and freedom, and to the building of women's community. We can dance, drink, talk politics, or network all we like in private homes, but the attendance will necessarily be limited to the fringes of our immediate circle. And for women living in small quarters or in extended families with fathers or husbands, the potential of such gatherings will be extremely constrained from the start. The same goes for floating meetings or parties held hither and yon--in a backroom this week, a church basement next month. These tend to be hard to sustain over time much less grow in size. And yet some women--particularly younger self-styled "queer" women--assure us that the loss of lesbian bars, community centers, women's music festivals, feminist boookstores and the like is not important. It's okay to "claim" a new party space once a month at yet another hard-to-find location somewhere across town, or in the corners of the local gay men's bar. We don't need public meeting spaces just for us, they say. As if women were somehow fundamentally different from every other group in their need for some territory of their own.

That said, it was still a revelation when I stumbled upon this article showing how having access to tangible public spaces mattered for the early women's movement. And it's a space that tends to be treated disdainfully, if it's existence is noted at all. I speak of the humble tearoom. Yes, where your great-grandmother (if of the middle-class sort) may have taken tea and a biscuit, or even a pleasant luncheon or two with several of her lady friends. Bourgeois and suffocatingly respectable you say? Wrong.

Also notice how another seemingly innocuous public space we have taken for granted until fairly recently--the ladies lavatory or restroom--was a deeply political struggle within Victorian society. Sobering stuff, given that the very existence of a ladies restroom as such (i.e. for female persons only) is once again a point of attack and contention in transgender politics.

Tea and Women – how the Tearoom supported women’s suffrage

Jane Pettigrew – tea specialist, historian, and writer

Tea has many unusual connections but one of the least obvious perhaps is the fact that towards the end of the 19th century, tearooms provided a safe haven and meeting place for the women suffragists and may have been instrumental in furthering their cause.

In many areas of Britain, local branches of the women’s movement grew out of the temperance societies. T-Total meetings were often just very large tea parties (with a sermon or two thrown in) and the women, who brewed gallons of tea and dished it out in mugs, encouraged ‘guests’ to turn away from harmful alcohol and instead drink ‘the cup that cheers but does not inebriate’.

Towards the end of the 19th century, society was changing fast. New public transport allowed easier movement into and around town, more women were working in professional employment, going out more, shopping in the new departments stores. And yet, there were no even moderately respectable places where some kind of refreshment could be taken by female shoppers. When William Whitely opened his department store in Bayswater in the 1870, he applied for a licence to open a restaurant inside the store but was refused on the grounds of its potential for immoral assignations!

And where were women to wash their hands and find other essential comforts? It was still considered very improper and frightfully bad manners to refer to women’s bodies, and finding a lavatory was almost impossible. The provision of public conveniences for ladies was considered outrageous and it was not until 1884 that the first ‘convenience’ run by the Ladies Lavatory Company opened near Oxford Circus.

The tearoom at the Walforf Hilton, London

To provide for women’s needs, women-only clubs started appearing – The University Women’s Club in 1883, The Camelot Club for shop and office workers in 1898, Harrods Ladies Club in 1890. And women met more and more frequently in tearooms. Tea had always had very genteel connections and, as the public tearooms became more and more popular during the 1880s and 90s, they were recognised as very respectable places where respectable women could enjoy a peaceful cup of tea away from the hurley-burley of busy urban streets. They created the perfect place for a little light refreshment, for a chat, and for discussions about politics and votes for women and, of course, for planning campaigns and demonstrations.

Fullers' tearoom at The London Colisseum in London

In Votes For Women, published in 1956, Roger Fulford wrote, “The spread of independence was helped by the growth of the tea-shop. A few expensive restaurants existed but apart from these, there were no places for a quick meal other than the formality of the large damask tablecloth and best silver at home, or the brisk clatter of the bar parlour. The tea-shop gave the young – perhaps in revolt against
the stuffiness of family afternoon tea – an ideal meeting place; it was an integral part of the women’s liberation movement.” And according to Margaret Corbett Ashby, the teashops run by the ABC (Aerated Bread Company) were “an enormous move to freedom”.

Once the Suffrage campaign got going, the tearooms played a central part. In 1907, the Young Hot Bloods (the younger members of the Women’s Social & Political Union, founded in 1907) met at a tea shop in the Strand. And Alan’s Tea Room at 263 Oxford Street regularly advertised the free use of its large function room for members of the Women’s Social Political Union. Records show that the room was used in 1910 by the Tax Resistance League and in 1911 by the Catholic Women’s Suffrage Society for its inaugural meeting. In 1913, at the end of the ‘pilgrimage’ to London by the NUWSS (the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies), some of the women (a few from the 50,000 who attended the rally) went to Alan’s for dinner and no doubt for several restorative and well-deserved cups of tea!

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