Separate areas with sofas, vanities, and even writing tables used to put the “rest” in women’s restrooms. Why were these spaces built, and why did they vanish?
It was rooted in the idea of separate spheres: that women’s place was in the home and men’s was outside, in public. So when middle-class women did venture into public for extended periods—when they went to the theater, for example—it was thought that they required a private, safe, gender-segregated space of their own that looked and functioned like part of their home. “They were designed like living rooms—like parlors—as spaces to protect virtue,” Wood said.
But at first, these lounges for women did not include a toilet component, says Terry Kogan, a law professor at the University of Utah. Kogan has worked on guidelines for gender-neutral bathrooms and is an expert on the legal and cultural norms that mandate the segregation of public restrooms by sex.
“Interestingly, ornate lounges for women preceded public restrooms by several decades,” Kogan explained, noting that there were parlors for women in public buildings many years prior to when most of America had indoor plumbing. In other words, gender separation and protecting women’s virtue was initially the justification for these spaces, and the toilet came later.
Although most new buildings don’t have dedicated lounge areas next to restrooms, some have “family rooms” that accommodate people who need to change a child’s diapers or breastfeed. Unlike their predecessors, these rooms tend to be nongendered, reflecting the shift toward a more inclusive concept of parenting. New initiatives like Stalled aim to pave the way for all-gender multi-user restrooms across America.
But the women’s-only lounge isn’t extinct just yet. The trendy Millennial women’s club The Wing has a “Personal Space” zone that includes a changing room, a nursing room, and a beauty room featuring a row of vanities and plush velvet chairs that wouldn’t look out of place in an Art Deco theater. The idea is no longer for women to hide out from the stresses of being in public—they don’t need an “emergency room.” But as they prepare to go out and meet friends or give a presentation at work, they can still appreciate a touch of old-school glamour.