Friday, June 15, 2012

A Newark woman's plea: a place "reserved for women" at Weequahic Park

Lake and Boat Landing, Weequahic Park, Newark, N.J.
A Newark woman's plea: a place "reserved for women" at Weequahic Park

Location: Weequahic Park, Elizabeth and Meeker Avenue, Newark, New Jersey, USA

Opened/Closed: plea was published on July 29, 1917

Once in a while, I happen to find a womyn's space that was never "lost" as such because it (apparently) never came into three-dimensional existence. But for a time, the womyn's space did exist in the hearts and minds of women who fervently wished for such a space to come into being.

One of these women was very eloquent writer named Olive, who desired nothing more than just "a small part" of Weequahic Park reserved for women.

From the Newark Sunday Call, July 29, 1917:

Oh, for a Manless Lodge in Some Park Wilderness

Here is a copy of a plea sent by a Newark woman to the Essex County Park Commission and gallantly considered by it at a recent meeting.


Would it be possible for you to have a part, a small part, of your park at Weequahic lake reserved for women? The signs say that no dogs are allowed at large in the parks: perhaps some signs could read, "No men allowed on these walks," those surrounding the park that you assign to women. Surely if dogs are excluded altogether, degenerates might be barred from certain portions of a public park.

Broad and Market Streets, Newark, New Jersey (1912)
There are women who like to be alone, who love the trees and the winds and the scents of the earth; who have no view which is not obstructed with red tin roofs or yards never free from lines of drying clothes; who need, for the peace of their souls and nerves, one quiet hour in the air; who need to flee the victrola belt where everyone has raised a piano to be a pianola which plays "America, I Have a Boy for You" and "The Wor-r-ld Will be Jea-lous of Me-ee," interspersed with eight hours of "classical exercises," "executed" under one hundred eighty pounds of pressure. 

It would not inconvenience many men if you allotted us a small part of the park. We are restricted from a few walks in New Jersey, freely given to men--the franchise for example. But just because the law classes us with degenerates and imbeciles do we have to have our confreres-in-law forcing their attentions upon us the minute we dare to be so unconventional as to sit under a tree in a public park at 3 o'clock on a bright afternoon, alone? I know that your commission will see that we are not further annoyed. 

Here is a wonderful day. But would I dare to go to Weequahic Park with only my knitting for protection?  Even I, who am considered bold and daring and rash, would not risk it.

View of Lake Weequahic Park,
Newark, N.J. (1909)
The memory of such insolence as I endured last Monday is still with me, and I sit on a screened porch and listen to my neighbor's "musics" and the swish of the winter's coal being shot into their collars--while the park is quiet and green and desirable.

Please! There aren't many of us who know we need outdoors. Those willow trees near Elizabeth avenue have a nice, quiet open spot.         


This was the editor's fairly sympathetic (if somewhat patronizing) response:

What is a woman to do who wants to be alone now and then, somewhere outdoors, and in a big city, and the men won't let her alone? The question has a jocular tang to it, but it is taken very seriously by some Newark women, and mere man himself can not but feel there is logic to "Olive's" plea to the park commission.

The parks belong to the people. Are women people? If not, will they become people when they get the vote, and may they then call for and obtain the enactment of laws setting aside spots in parks for the use and enjoyment of their sex exclusively? Man answers, "No, certainly not, it would be contrary to the spirit of American democracy;" and woman makes reply that some men are altogther too democratic and man-made laws do not properly keep them in bounds. The park commission is said to be informally contemplating play places for little girls, apart and distinct from those for little boys. If it can do this logically, why may it not properly provide a recreation space for the big girls? It is an absorbing subject the further you go into it.

The park commission side-stepped the crux of the question and informed "Olive" that its policeman would try and afford her protection. But the commissioners and "Olive" and all of us know that her protection would exist only so long as the policeman stood guard over her. Some form of genus homo would appear and the ancient annoyances which the daughters of Eve have had to endure since ever the gates of the Garden of Eden swung open on their hinges would be resumed.

What's to do about it anyway?

How long must civilization struggle onward and upward before "Olive" and her kind may gaze upon a happy earth dotted with little "Houses of Refuge," in the open, where none but feminine voices may be heard mingling with the other and tuneful sounds of nature, where the wicked shall cease from troubling and the women be at rest? It will be aeons hence, we are afraid, and we say it with a pensive regret. Anything that woman wants should, if good for her, be granted. And would not the "Retreat for  Man-Wear/Woman" be good for her, and, maybe for the rest of us too? If she wishes to flee from man, man should put nothing in her way to prevent. But the law, democracy, the sociological fitness of things are grave problems to get around or over. Can any thoughtful reader suggest a way? How inspiring to contemplate: a place under the willows along Elizabeth avenue with women, women only, in ones and twos and threes, sitting, strolling, knitting and gossiping, with the rest of the world gazing from afar off upon this new spectacle of the untrammeling  of womanhood. Certainly no innovation that is within the power of President Franklin Murphy and his associates to devise and create would attract so vast and so curious public attention.--Ed.

This was not the only effort from this era to establish space within an American public park for women. Also see this initiative to provide a similar safe space in Kansas City's Budd Park in 1916.

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