Saturday, September 15, 2007

DC Doings

Well, I am just back from a work week in DC. I drafted several blogs during my travels, but I only once found a free wi-fi connection (and it was in a brew pub!).

Other than the lack of connectivity, I love DC. I love to ride the metro. I love to watch the tourists. I love to wander neighborhoods. I love to eat good ethnic food. And now I can say, after spending 40+ hours there, I love the Library of Congress. The LOC catalogs 7,000 new books a day and has something in excess of 25 million books (and another million "other" items) in the stacks. The setting is gorgeous and the staff leaves you pretty much alone unless you want help. What's not to love?
Okay, the security was a bit intense and the lack of a women's bathroom anywhere near the main reading room was a pain, but still, it is an amazingly place.
I spent most of my time reading etiquette manuals from the mid-19th century up through today. These books were quite the rage in the late 19th c. and early 20th c. and there are probably 10 manuals for every one published post 1950. I was amused to find that some of the oldies were still being published as late as the 1960s.
So how good are you on the etiquette of public space?
1. When ascending and descending stairs, who goes first?
2. If a woman wanted to host a restaurant meal for a man before 1970, how did she actually go about paying the tab without crushing his masculinity?
3. When was a woman in pre-1940s America supposed to wear a hat?
4. Did women need an escort in pre-1960s America in order to feel entitled to traverse urban streets and take advantage of public transportation?
When the etiquette manuals dried up (in the last 40 years), I switched over to reading self-defense manuals directed at women. In terms of advice to women on how to conduct themselves in public space, these seem to be what replaces the etiquette manuals. Not surprisingly, the tone is quite different and they often use the old "do this and never do that" books from earlier generations as the straw man in making their point that women have been conditioned to be helpless in public. The self-defense authors play this out to argue that women have been taught to be victims and they need to "take charge" of their lives by learning karate, carrying mace, and checking the back seats of their cars before driving away from the mall. I'll take the etiquette manuals over these fear mongering rags any day. (oops, did I say that out loud?)
Finally, I checked in on the professional papers published about public comfort stations and rest rooms at the turn of the 20th century. Most major cities started building comfort stations (public toilets) in that period and folks were eager to share their funding strategies and "modern" designs. Not surprisingly, but still markedly counter to the current rage for potty parity, women's facilities were generally significantly smaller (fewer stalls and no urinal-equivalents) than those built for men. They also often included a "rest room" (which was a lounge for women only -- to give them a respite from the "public" of public space) while men's facilities never had such spaces. I'll have lots to say on what all this means later... or certainly by the time I write the book, anyway.


Stella said...

your research sounds truly fascinating. are you working on a book?

Ypsipearl said...

I'm a little preoccupied with the etiquette of private spaces right now. You know what I'm a-talkin' about!!

Hey, I'll link to your blog, and you can link to mine, k? I still have to figure out how to do that.

Zoe the Wonder Dog said...

Yes, Stella, I'm writing a book about women and public space. I am focusing mostly on the organized attempts women made in the 20th century to make cities "friendlier" for women through the creation of laws and institutions and challenges to custom/gender etiquette.