Thursday, August 23, 2012

Hotel Rideau

Hotel Rideau, Smith Falls, Ontario (1910)
Hotel Rideau

Location: Main Street, Smith Falls, Ontario, Canada (or perhaps Jarvis Street in Toronto?)

Opened/Closed: "Ladies and Escorts Rooms" identified as lesbian space during the 1950s 

I'm a little perplexed as to whether I have the right Hotel Rideau (or Rideau Hotel) here. Historian Elise Chenier discusses the Rideau Hotel within the context of Jarvis Street in Toronto.

But there apparently never was a Rideau Hotel on Jarvis Street. Could she mean the Hotel Rideau in Smith Falls, Ontario?

At any rate, Chenier's description of the Rideau Hotel is a very exciting find for me.

I have long kept the definition of "womyn's space" pretty loose here, partly from a hunch I had that even the most conservative, upper-class, religious, or seemingly heterosexual women's space ultimately had significance in terms of women's autonomy--even if that wasn't its expressed intent.

In that spirit, I have posted on all kinds of ladies parlors, ladies cafes, ladies restaurants, ladies writing rooms, and other similarly segregated spaces that used to exist in conjuction with public spaces designed and operated largely for men, such as hotels. I had a feeling that these kinds of rooms, no matter how compromised, still created some kind of opening for women to form friendships, and yes, even intimate relationships and erotic connections with one another.

But I had no real proof of that.

Till now! From "Rethinking Class in Lesbian Bar Culture: Living 'The Gay Life' in Toronto, 1955-1965":

Up until the mid-1950s, lesbians were most likely to be found in public houses along Jarvis Street. The Rideau Hotel was one of the more popular, perhaps because it had one of the few remaining "ladies only" rooms. In an effort to prevent sexual immorality (and appease temperance advocates), Ontario liquor licensing laws required that public houses thwart heterosexual contact between strangers by providing at least two physically separate rooms: one for men only, and the other for women. Up until the early 1970s when feminists launched a successful campaign against such forms of segregation, men could gain access to what were called "ladies and escorts rooms" only by entering with a woman. The Rideau's "women only" room made it particularly well suited to
gay women's social needs. Not only did it allow them space to socialize with each other, but it also shielded them from heterosexual advances and male antagonism.

Here we see the Law of Unintended Consequences working two ways.

One, when religious temperance crusaders pushed for the creation of ladies salons, their intent was to  protect women's virtue by restricting their access to men and men's access to them. In time, what they actually did was carve out public space where lesbians could find each other with minimal male harrassment.

Two, when 1970s feminists railed against sex discrimination in public accomodations, they (inadvertently?) destroyed--or at least deeply compromised--the ability of lesbians to legally gather in a public space without the presence of men.

Lesson? Be very careful what policies you advocate for and who you define as your political allies.

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