Saturday, April 7, 2012

A New York woman: Ladies want a restaurant of their own (1885)

Tribeca's ice cream saloon, New York City
Ladies want a restaurant of their own (1885)

Anybody who has ever delved into women's history knows that it is not easy to find first-hand accounts by women, especially the further back in time you go.

So to find a letter from 1885, in which a woman describes in great detail the male-dominated restaurants of New York City-- including the so-called "ladies dining rooms" that so many up them had set up (but apparently didn't enforce or maintain as women's spaces)--is quite a treasure. And for the same woman to follow up on all that with a call for a genuine women-only restaurant is just mind-blowing.

Some background. During the 1880s, women in urban areas began to increase their participation in the paid labor force, especially as office workers (a field that had previously been shut off to them). (Of course, this movement was largely limited to literate white women or possibly women who passed as white.) Given that they were now away from home during meal times, some of them began to patronize the downtown lunch counters and restaurants that had previously been considered the proper and exclusive domain of the gents. Naturally, there were men that resented this, and we see this resentment bubbling over in an article published in the New York Times on December 20, 1885. An anonymous (presumably male) writer is nearly apoplectic that "fair women at lunch" would "invade the down-town restaurants" where they had been almost entirely absent just a few years before. These women are roundly denounced as too particular--they're accused of demanding "special accommodations and special dishes"--and as poor tippers. Here's one representative rant:

All the restaurants below the City Hall, which for years were frequented virtually by men alone, now count scores, and some of them a hundred, regular lunch patrons who wear a dress. Profitable for the proprietors, but rarely so for the waiters. The average woman who lunches down town is American enough to believe that the proprietor should pay his waiters for their services, and not ask her indirectly to help him do so. So the woman who "tips" the waiter in a down-town lunch room is as great a rarity as the sister who "tips" the garcon in the "ladies' lunch" uptown in the shopping districts.

Even the culinary preferences of these lunching ladies are scrutinized in excrutiating detail and found deficient. For example, we're sternly informed that the ladies rarely call for hearty foodstuffs such as roasts, steaks, chops, or game. And what they do decide to dine upon drives this man to distraction, though why he would be so disturbed by the midday sight of soup, oysters, ice cream, or strawberries remains a bit of a mystery. Or why he should even consider this his business, apart from his Natural Right to police the conduct of women in every domain. Right down to what is on their forks.

It was all quite infuriating for a woman who signs her letter to the Times as ONE OF THEM. She makes it clear that she does NOT care for dining with men in public, but is left with no alternative:

Although I am comparatively a recent "invader," still I do not doubt that not from choice, but from necessity, did the first obnoxious woman intrude upon the sacred precincts of her "lord and master" during his refreshment hour. To the "average woman" the contemplation of her own sex is far more pleasing at such a time than a crowd of hungry men who are strangers to her, for it is a well established fact that a hungry man is disagreeable, to say the least.

This woman concedes that most restaurants do set aside a ladies dining area, generally on the second floor (does the spatial layout ring a bell for all you students of contemporary gay bars?). However, she also observes that these so-called ladies' areas are typically CRAMMED WITH MEN who actually treat the women like interlopers. Not only that, but the women are forced into paying inflated prices for the dubious privilege:

True, almost every respectable restaurant bears the sign "ladies' restaurant up stairs" but upon entering we find the room filled with men, and we meekly subside into whatever vacant space we are allotted, running the gauntlet thereto between the domineering, quizzical or supercilious eyes of the nabobs, who glare at us as if we had invaded their domain instead of they ours, and for all this we are allowed to pay double the price charged in a regular business man's eating house.

Apart from the florid Victorian prose, this is a remarkably frank and vivid assessment of how men tend to behave around any space designated as female. And that is that the space must be somehow infiltrated and/or controlled--not only by male bodies taking up space and pushing females to the margins, but by subtle (or not so subtle) male surveillance and visual intimidation. In our earlier analysis of Chicago's Hotel Bismarck, we described something similar. In illustrations of the "main" dining room, we observed only men, which was no real surprise. But even in the so-called ladies' cafe, we counted more men than women, and virtually all the women present were escorted or accompanied by men. Only two women appeared to be together, and they were standing (i.e. not sitting at a table) and situated way to the rear. In addition, we've documented similar male dominance posturing in settings as varied as a woman-only railcar in India or a mid-century lesbian bar in Detroit, Kansas City, or New Orleans. But in truth, all this is evident to any observant woman trying to utilize most any space designated as women-only or intended for women's use.

For our anonymous woman commentator, it was all enough to make her physically ill-at-ease. "I have frequently left my lunch half eaten," she admits, "because it took away my appetite to have every mouthful taken note of" by the masculine sex, along with their general fixation on "where we eat, what we eat, and how we eat." As she reminds her readers, "it is stern hunger, and not the prospect of the society of the 'average male luncher' that prompts us to enter his domain."

For our hungry unnamed woman, the solution is not a sentimental appeal for more refined or gentlemanly behavior within New York's downtown lunchrooms. She wants a genuine ladies-only restaurant! As she tartly observes, "in all down-town New York there is not one restaurant devoted solely to the use of women." And rather than lecture the Times writer on his rude and overbearing manners, she has more specific demands in mind:

The profound insight into our souls as well as into our pockets and lunch plates which this man displays fills me with awe, but if I might offer a suggestion he can turn his powers to better use, viz., inspire some enterprising individual with opening a restaurant solely for women. Give us some central location between the City Hall and South Ferry, with clean tables, respectful waiters, (whose wages by the by are to be paid by their employer, and not by us), food at popular prices, finger bowls, for some of us do use them, and we will be glad to leave the coast clear in those houses where those words "Reserved for ladies" are a hollow mockery. Not only will he who does this be bestowing a blessing on womankind generally, but he will be on the road to fortune, since women are cash customers and checks with them are something utterly despised. Hoping this appeal of mine will take speedy root in some philanthropic soil, and that we may soon be enjoying this long sought for Mecca in our toilsome lives, for I am ONE OF THEM.

Is that a kick-ass demand for womyn's space or what?

1 comment:

  1. I'd love a women's only restaurant! That'd be so fun. I love women-only spaces. I have been teaching musical theater at an all-girl summer camp with an all-female staff. I do it every year for the past 6 years, and the comfort and safety I feel at being surrounded by women and girls for six weeks every summer is unrivaled by any other circumstance. I love my girls! I love that they are able to play and have a great time in a safe, sex-segregated camp environment! Unfortunately, these kinds of things are soon to be extinct because "sex-blind" postmodern patriarchy wants to ruin women's (and girl's) spaces for no good reason.


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