Debates over women’s rights in America have often polarized between those arguing that women need special recognition of how they differ from men – their role as mothers, smaller physiques, sexual vulnerability, and greater sensitivity, for example – and those arguing that women just need to be treated just like men. The story of how women’s rights expanded historically seems, crudely sketched, as first an expansion of special treatment and then an affirmation of similar treatment. The trajectory for women in the paid labor force, for instance, can be crudely described as a period of legislation providing women with special hours and conditions followed by an effort to guarantee equal treatment.
A new article by historian Paul Freedman in the Journal of Social History recounts one small part of the women’s rights story that seems to fit this pattern: women in restaurants. Today, a group of women dining without men is hardly worthy of notice; a woman dining alone might stir only about as much curiosity as a man dining alone. It was once quite different.
Restaurants as we know them today emerged in the United States in the 1820s and ‘30s. (Before then, the main dining places outside the home were inns and taverns where an unaccompanied woman was unusual and presumed to be of “ill repute” – see this 2011 post.) The early restaurants, meant to be places of elegant dining, either banned or discouraged unaccompanied women. A few restaurants, reports Freedman, provided private rooms where men could bring paid companions for dinner and apres-dinner activities. Hotels had to accommodate occasional solo women travelers; some set aside special eating rooms with separate entrances just for them. Similarly, some restaurants allowed groups of women to reserve private rooms for lunches. But in general and despite protests by early feminists, respectable restaurants discouraged women, especially if they were not with husbands or fathers, from dining or from dining in the central space.
Freedman describes the development over the nineteenth century of alternative eating places for women, a response to the growing number of middle-class women coming downtown to shop, particularly in the post-bellum department stores (see here), and to the growing number of women employed in downtown offices. Department stores themselves provided places for ladies’ lunch, but particularly distinctive was the evolution of candy stores, ice cream “saloons,” and tea shops into restaurants with larger menus. (The famous East Coast Schrafft’s restaurant chain emerged around 1900, converted from candy stores.) The women’s eateries emphasized the lighter meals, salads, and sweets that restauranteurs thought were distinctively women’s fare and, importantly, excluded alcohol and thus the men interested in drinking. These were special accommodations for women. Even after the turn of the century, fashionable restaurants turned away unaccompanied women, especially later in the evening.
Freedman argues that the turning point was Prohibition in the 1920s. Unable to make their profits on alcohol, many of the classic restaurants went out of business. “Free lunch” bars also closed. “The places that flourished in the new environment were luncheonettes, coffee shops, soda and hamburger places, roadside restaurants, Chinese restaurants and other ethnic establishments—most of them welcoming female customers. Beginning in the 1920s, men showed up at what had previously been largely female preserves to consume sandwiches and other light fare served without alcoholic accompaniment.” Today, all restaurants are open seating by gender.
This story seems to show an historical arc for women from exclusion in the early 19th century to special accommodation in late 19th century to non-discrimination in the 21st century. One might even argue that the menus of fashionable restaurants today reveal the triumph of the presumed “feminine cuisine.”