Gender, Politics, and Power: The Development of the Ladies Rest Room and Lounge in Rural America, 1900-1945

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O'Bryan, Katherine Merzbacher
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Middle Tennessee State University
This dissertation investigates a little-known and largely-forgotten rural public institution - the ladies rest room. Individual parties had differing motives for advocating the establishment of ladies rest rooms in rural market towns during the Progressive Era. Town businessmen hoped to encourage the patronage of rural women and their families to their stores. Male city and county authorities wanted to appear benevolent. Rural women often merely wanted a place where they could feel comfortable in the male-gendered town square. In many communities these different interests shared a consensus that the establishment of ladies rest rooms in a central location of town would be of benefit, first and foremost, to the women and their children. Beyond this, however, some thought that the ladies rest room had the potential to benefit local businesses, and subsequently, the town economy. Some also hoped, perhaps condescendingly in some cases, that by providing home demonstration and improvement activities at the rest room, the lives of rural women and their families could be further improved, strengthening the quality and vitality of both the town and the country.
The history of the development of ladies rest rooms is one small chapter in the larger story of the Progressive Era transformation of rural America. An analysis of the establishment of several ladies rest rooms throughout the country during this time period demonstrates the growing relationship between gender and the growth of consumerism in the early-twentieth century. This pattern was facilitated, in part, by rural women's organizations, the home improvement movement and accompanying home demonstration activities, and the role that local merchants and businessmen played in acknowledging women as consumers and providing wares that encouraged and facilitated the sale of "modern" merchandise that assisted women in their daily lives.
An analysis of the establishment and development of ladies rest room facilities in small market towns demonstrates that gender and consumerism worked together to shape public space. As this study illustrates, rural women had a great deal of agency in their own lives, and were active participants, if not often the catalyst, for the establishment of rest rooms. In this way, rural women worked to "regender" traditionally male public spaces - including county courthouses, community buildings, and, to a larger extent, the central business district - for themselves and their use.