CHICAGO — The sign outside says, "We're the best-kept secret in Chicago."
For a woman traveling by herself, the Eleanor Residence is an inexpensive gem of a place located in an upscale Chicago neighborhood known as the Gold Coast. Women may live at the Eleanor for a few weeks - or for up to two years. It's also available to guests like me who are in town for just a short stay.
The Eleanor is one of many women-only residences in large cities around the country (see list, page 19). Some, like the Eleanor, were started a century or more ago by women philanthropists. Others, like the Berkeley Residence in Boston and Gum Moon in San Francisco, owe their existence to faith-based organizations such as the YWCA and the United Methodist Church, respectively.
Some of the residences have a special focus. Gum Moon, which means golden door in Cantonese, is primarily for Asian women, but is open to all women regardless of race or creed. The Three Arts Club in Chicago - founded in 1912 by a group of socially conscious women including Jane Addams - was chartered to "provide a home and club for young women engaged in the practice or study of the arts."
Accommodations at these women-only residences tend to be basic. At the Eleanor, I got a clean, high-ceilinged, no-frills room (desk, single bed, phone, dresser, ceiling fan) - but no air conditioning - for a modest daily rate. Toilet, shower, and bath were down the hall. Although the lack of amenities may be too Spartan for some, I was traveling on a budget and used to sweating in Baltimore's summer heat.
Every minus had a plus. At the Eleanor and the Three Arts Club, the rate includes breakfast and dinner. The Eleanor's downtown location makes it easy for visitors to explore Chicago. I felt that the residence offered a safe harbor to me, a solo traveler in an unfamiliar city.
The place also appealed to my feminist sentiments. In 1898, 30 years before Virginia Woolf wrote "A Room of One's Own," Ina Law Robertson founded the Eleanor for young working women in need of warm and affordable housing. Ms. Robertson was 20 years old and a money manager for a wealthy man who encouraged her to engage in philanthropic causes. Her plan was to foster female economic independence and to give women an opportunity to devote whatever free time they had to career and personal development, reflection, and study, rather than housekeeping, cooking, and cleaning.
The same is true today.
"I wanted a place that was like a cloister," says Susan Fong Bajka, a Chinese-American documentary film editor who was staying at the Eleanor when I was. Bajka had left her adopted Germany to develop her talents as an artist and writer.
Other women I met in the Eleanor's cafeteria line, community dining room, and garden echoed similar sentiments. They included Lindsay, a student from Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, Va., who was in town for the summer, working at her first real job; and Africa, a beautiful young woman who was leaving in a few days to join the Alvin Ailey Dance Company in New York.
It felt good to be in the company of women with aspirations. These conversations were an unexpected bonus of my four-day visit and unlikely to have occurred, had I stayed at a nearby hotel as planned.
From New York to San Francisco and places in between, the thread that runs through these women-only residences is women helping women.
Sitting in my room at the Eleanor, I thought that Virginia Woolf would have approved of this place. Now if the administrators can just find the money to add air conditioning....
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