Thursday, November 22, 2012

Scenes in a Boston Ladies Restaurant (1889)

Boston ladies (1890s)
Scenes in a Boston Ladies Restaurant (1899)

As regular Lost readers are aware, womyn's spaces have a complex and often contradictory history in terms of how gender/sexual boundaries are understood and enforced. And what I'm finding is that this ambivalence has been a consistent theme for at least the past hundred years or more. 

Today, you can find many lesbian bars, dyke marches, and other so-called "womyn's spaces" that are pretty much dominated by men. Women may feel vaguely uncomfortable about the situation, but many seem hapless or paralyzed by guilt when it comes to doing anything about it. 

You can also find many examples of women who are intent on preserving a particular womyn's space, along with women who are willing to aggressively regulate the presence of men to the extent that the law and/or custom will allow. These spaces can be as different as a 1950s lesbian bar in Detroit or Buffalo, a 1970s women's music festival, or a current women's passenger train car in India. 

Up until now, though, the evidence I have seen suggests that while some women may have been unhappy about the numbers of men that insisted on barging into the ladies' cafes and restaurants of 80 - 130 years ago (while the same men still insisted that the gentlemen's clubs, bars, and grills be strictly that), the women's objections were largely muffled, ineffective, and limited to the private sphere. (By way of exception, see this 1885 complaint of a New York City woman, which was published in the New York Times.

But just recently I found an article that shows that Boston women were not afraid of policing their ladies' restaurants. They didn't shy away from the old "fish eye" when it came to the dudes marching in--unlike many of their supposedly more liberated and assertive great, great-granddaughters.

Back on December 22, 1889, the Boston Daily Globe published a piece called "Scenes in a Ladies Restaurant." As you would expect, the descriptions of the women and their conversations are quite patronizing. And yet for all the condescending language and dismissive treatment of these women, we still see that these women were quite capable of taking care of business. In addition, we see the origins of a narrative that is still pretty common: the poor naif of a man who (accidentally!) wanders into a lesbian bar, only to be treated cruelly by the mean evil butches:

It is a rare thing to see a man in a ladies' restaurant. Few men possess the courage to venture in such a place. However a man gets in sometimes, but not intentionally always. When one does come in, no matter under what circumstances, he wishes before he has been there five minutes he had selected some other place in which to get his lunch. He looks about in a helpless and distressed way for a seat. His evil genius leads him to take the one beside the prim and proper spinster. She looks up to see who it is that dares to share a table with her, and then gives a little shudder, as if to say, "Oh, good gracious! It's a man!" And she turns slightly in her chair in order to present him with the cheerless north side of a very cold shoulder.

The unhappy recipient of these delicate attentions casts an appealing glance at the women opposite, and is rewarded with a look of cold contempt, whose mercurial registration would be about 20 below zero. The poor unfortunate young man is at once depressed by the frigidity of the surrounding atmosphere. He bends his downcast eyes, rings the bell and orders "chicken salad" in a supulchral tone, without raising his eyes. Many long and painful minutes elapse before his order is filled, during which time he devotes himself to the literary merits of the bill of fare, with an ardor of attention that is really pathetic. At last his order comes and he makes remarkably good time in getting through it. He apparently does not care for any dessert, except that he has an inward desire to desert this place of torture. He pays his bill and departs a wiser and a sadder man.

Just to show that nothing is new under the proverbial sun, read a contemporary retelling of this story here.

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