The lost age of women-only hotels

From their start as “moral homes” to glamorous post-war residences, the hotels offered freedom and community for women redefining America’s idea of their place in society.

In 1929, a New York organization held a contest, offering a six-day trip to Bermuda to a “business girl” who suggested the winning name for a new women-only hotel. Names poured in: The Diana. The Patrician. Broad View. The organization would eventually choose The Sutton. But another entry summed up what the residence actually meant to the women who stayed there: Paradise.

For over a century, such same-sex hotels served as places of respite, relaxation, and full-time residence for women young and old. Born from Victorian-era fears about women’s morality, the hotels housed thousands of ambitious women who helped redefine America’s idea of their place in society.

In early 19th-century America, the idea of unchaperoned travel was almost unthinkable for most women. In a mostly sex-segregated society, middle- and upper-class white women weren’t expected to have an interest in travel or urban life, and the home was touted as their true sphere. When women did travel, they were strictly minded and swept into private quarters as quickly as possible.

Most public places didn’t just frown on women—they forbade them. Cities were demonized as immoral places unfit for the fairer sex, and women who worked outside the home were seen as dangerous and sexually brazen. Though working-class women, immigrants, and women of color did venture from their homes, often living in their employers’ houses as domestic, they were viewed with suspicion.

But times were changing, and as lower-class women flocked to cities to find work, upper-class women worried about their virtue. They responded to a housing crisis by underwriting what historian Nina E. Harkrader calls “moral homes.” These women-only boardinghouses appealed to working women whose inferior wages left them little to live on, and were seen as an opportunity to learn middle-class morals. The women didn’t live there completely alone: They were watched over by “house mothers,” older women who policed their behavior.

The homes sprung up in urban centers around the country, and by 1898 the Department of Labor (DoL) noted that 46 cities had homes for working girls—most run by Christian groups and intended as temporary dwellings. One of them, the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA)’s Margaret Louisa Home in New York, was built in response to a surge of women workers in 1891. The DoL listed its occupants as everything from milliners to governesses, librarians, and saleswomen. Among the requirements for admission were things like “good character,” “self-supporting,” and “respectability.”

As social mores continued to change, thanks in part to the suffrage movement and women’s participation in both world wars, women from the middle and upper classes began careers, too, and women-only hotels became common. They ranged from bare-bones to glamorous. Women lived there for short periods or years, sustained by maid and meal service and a chance to socialize with their fellow residents.

With names like the Martha Washington, the Allerton, and the Barbizon, these hotels served new generations of women who, unlike their mothers, had access to college educations and intended to pursue careers before marriage. During their heyday from the 1920s through the 1970s, they were places where ambitious women could meet like-minded friends, get their start in a city, and make the most of life.

“The hotels meant freedom,” says writer and historian Paulina Bren. Her book The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free tracks the exclusive hotel’s rise and fall. Women who had never set foot in New York found a safe haven there—and a launch pad. In an era before email, cell phones, and cheap long distance calling, newcomers to a city were effectively cut off from their old social networks. In the women’s hotels, they made new ones, and lived in an atmosphere of safety and familiarity among strangers.

Most had stringent requirements for residents. To live in the Barbizon, “You had to look young, eager, and attractive—and white,” says Bren. The building teemed with models, actresses, and career women, most good-looking and well-to-do. Residents had to bring recommendation letters and were expected to actively pursue employment. Men were not allowed on upper floors.

Upstairs, though, a dormitory feel reigned. For some residents, the Barbizon was a true dorm: Students at the exclusive Katharine Gibbs secretarial school roomed there. And women living there participated in plenty of college-style antics: Grace Kelly danced down the hallways topless, and the hotels’ history echoes with secret parties, illicit liaisons, and late-night jokes.

“It’s not as if women were locked up in the Barbizon,” says Bren. “Outside was a unisex world.” Though some chafed against the hotel’s restrictions, the life they lived outside its walls was one of rampant sexual harassment, gender bias, and discriminatory employment practices.

Though they were rooted in fears about sexual purity, the hotels eventually helped normalize the idea of women as independent—even ambitious—members of society. But as women’s rights continued to expand, and the availability of legalized contraception transformed sexual values, the hotels fell out of favor. Women wanted to socialize and even live among men, and many didn’t want to marry at all.

By the 1970s, most of the women’s hotels were defunct. Though the Barbizon stayed open, it began taking male guests in 1981. When it was remodeled into luxury condos in 2006, there were only 14 women who remained as long-term residents.

“There is something that can be rich and worthwhile in private dwellings just for women,” says Bren. Today, modern professional women no longer need “protection” as they launch their careers. Nowadays, Bren says, “We women informally create those spaces ourselves.” But while their heyday may be over, the feeling of freedom and camaraderie found in history’s hotels for women are still worth claiming.

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