Meet the women who fought so you could dine without a male chaperone

Polly Holliday's. Photo via Ephemeral New York.

Meet the women who fought so you could dine without a male chaperone

History + Culture

Meet the women who fought so you could dine without a male chaperone

A female friend and I have a tradition: whenever we’re out together, we try to order the sloppiest item on the menu. Neither of us wants to emulate the female stereotype of daintily chewing on a salad, but we also just like exercising the freedom to eat what we want to eat. In an age where Lady Doritos jokes thankfully fall short, it’s comforting to know we can devour greasy cheeseburgers and sauce-laden Buffalo wings with abandon.

It’s something we definitely take for granted today, but in case you weren’t sure, there was a time when restaurants refused to serve women who were not accompanied by a male chaperone.

Imagining that reality in the context of today’s world is just bananas — trying to coerce an annoying male coworker into “grabbing coffee” with me just so I could buy a latte, dragging my husband to some bougie cafe in Williamsburg so I could take the perfect Instagram shot of avocado toast, never being able to enjoy that messy cheeseburger on my own time is unfathomable these days.

But let’s take a trip down memory lane, to a time when women couldn’t sit with a female friend at a table in public, but were encouraged to get behind the counter. “Women of the early 1800s ran establishments serving men almost exclusively,” Jan Whitaker wrote in a piece for the Boston Hospitality Review titled “From Patrons to Chefs, a History of Women in Restaurants.”

Whitaker notes that female tavern owners managed most of the day-to-day operations. They “supervised male waiters and provided steak and oysters accompanied by a full range of drinks from the bar.” Women would continue to play a role in the rise of public eateries in America, doing everything from cooking meals we know and love today, to managing the opening of America’s first vegetarian restaurant.

But for the most part, the options for where women could dine in public in America were limited. It’s something journalist Jane Cunningham Croly, AKA “Jenny June,” understood back in 1868. She knew things needed to change drastically after being denied a ticket to a dinner honoring Charles Dickens, an event hosted by the New York Press Club at Delmonico’s. The Press Club believed that the presence of the women would make the occasion ‘promiscuous’ (because no one wants to get all hot and bothered while while sucking down aspics de foies-gras), which was apparently enough to bar them from attending the complimentary dinner hosting a pretty sickly British author.

The ban was quietly lifted a few days before the event, but Croly declined to go regardless, basically saying, “Eff that noise.” She responded by founding her own club called Sororis, immediately following the event.

Sororis, a botanical term for flowers that bloom into fruit, became an “organization of professional and literary women.” For Croly and her members, the name symbolized “women’s determination to transform supposedly delicate and feeble ladies into important members of public society.”

The first official meeting was held on April 20th, 1868. Members met up at Delmonico’s to peacefully but powerfully protest the ridiculous ban against solo female diners. They demanded to be served as equals; Delmonico’s acquiesced, providing the club with a private dining room and a special menu set at $1 per person.

The progressive decision also proved to be a profitable move — the Sororis Club members enjoyed their experience so much they chose Delmonico’s as their meeting point for years to follow.

It solidified the property as the first establishment in history to offer a place for women to dine, sans male chaperone. The restaurant even pays tribute to one of America’s most famous “power lunches” every year, resurrecting the original menu and modernizing it for current-day diners.

The fight for women’s rights didn’t end at Delmonico’s – female-driven dining crews sprouted up across the U.S., unified with similar feminist goals in mind. In 1912 Marie Jenney Howe founded Heterodoxy, an organization for women leading “unorthodox lives.” They originally met at Polly Holladay’s restaurant on MacDougal Street in Manhattan, where they discussed all things political, cultural and philosophical, especially controversial topics.

No records were kept, as many of the members identified as lesbian or bisexual, and engaged in activities and behaviors that most at the time would have considered illicit or illegal. But Polly’s reputation as a safe haven for self-expression lived on, even after the members relocated their meetings to the Greenwich Village Inn.

Dining out for women was a lot easier during second-wave feminism in the 1960s and 70s, but it still endured some sexist tendencies. Luckily feminist leader Betty Friedan put an end to one of the most ridiculous restrictions of her time. Almost until 1970, the Oak Room at the Plaza Hotel in New York City had weirdly specific policy: women could come and go as they pleased during the weekend, but they were denied lunch service during the week.

Fed up with arbitrary restrictions such as that, Friedan’s squad rolled into the Oak Room in mid-February, 1969. They ignored the maître d’hôtel’s protestations, sat at a large table, and waited to be served.  Here’s what happened, according to an article in the New York Times:

“The waiters’ response was to remove the table, leaving the women sitting awkwardly in a circle. A man at a nearby booth offered breadsticks, which were declined, and the group decamped to form a picket line in front of the hotel.”

News of the sit-in organized by Friedan, whose actions typically garnered massive press coverage, spread like wildfire across the nation. The Oak Room eventually folded under the table, and overturned its policy shortly after the event.

It still amazes me that gendered dining rules and limitations were a “thing” well into the 20th century. But the actions of these women, along with so many more who performed sit-ins or sip-ins across the country to defend their rights, provide proof that marginalized communities can absolutely bring change.

I’ll try to keep that in mind the next time I have to wipe cheese sauce from the side of my mouth in public.

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