Document 6M: Joan Willmer, "Not on the Menu," Labor Pains, 1, no. 1 (August 1975), pp. 8-9.

by Joan Willmer

   A waitress was fired recently because she refused to shave her legs. She argued that waiters don't have to shave theirs, but the manager didn't buy the argument. Waitresses have to be more than clean, well groomed and good at their work; they must provide a "come-on" for male customers. Accordingly, waitresses are probably harassed by pawing, dirty-mouthed men more than any other single group of working women.

   The male managers or owners of a great many eateries and beaneries where good food is not the main concern are often the worst of sexual harassers and exploiters. They seem to regard their waitresses as objects of open sport.

   Paula was harassed by a regular customer. This man preferred giving his order with one hand half way up the waitress's thigh. Paula maneuvered to take his orders from inaccessible angles; the customer was not only persistent but ingenious. Paula complained to the manager who told her to grow up and to handle her own problems.

   One night a regular waitress was off sick and Paula took on the extra tables. During the rush hours, the manager's wife came in to help. Paula gave the manager's wife the table with the regular customer. The manager made it his business to be near that table throughout the man's meal. In fact, any time his wife worked, the manager kept an eye on his customers' behavior!

   Alice landed a job as a waitress in a restaurant where it was the custom of the staff to have a drink together after closing time. On her first night, Alice was relaxing with her new co-workers when the owner appeared, smiling and joking with his staff. He sat next to his newest employee and in conversation they discovered a hobby in common and discussed it on an equal basis. Finally the owner rose to leave. Smiling, he extended his hand and gave a firm, warm squeeze to Alice's left breast. Alice was so shaken she made no move to protest.

   Alice's ex-co-workers Lucy, had a similar experience with this owner; he approached Lucy from the rear one day and snaked a congenial arm over her shoulder to cup a hand around one breast. Lucy reacted with involuntary atavism -- she whirled around, fists clenched and ready. Bewildered, the owner never accosted Lucy again. Several days later, however, he directed the manager to fire Lucy because she was "no better than a slut."

   A waitress is seen as the predatory object of both those who employ her and those she serves.


What can we do?

   How do we, women determined to assert our dignity, proceed to remedy this situation? A campaign must be worked out. It must not jeopardize the real benefits that waitressing affords, and it must not merely create further and more antagonistic rifts between what should be a common community of men and women.

   A different system of rewards in the food service field might be a starting point. It is possible to move for the general institution of a service charge on bills. Waitresses would not have to go beyond the bounds of dignity to please customers in order to insure the payment of a tip.

   The service charge would be one means of removing a waitress from a position in which she finds it difficult to protest indignities but the management would have to be on her side. A cynical management can always demand that its waitresses act to "please" the customers.

   There would have to be a concurrence on the part of all waitresses. Many would find the set service charge a threat to their earning capacities. There are women with strength and wit who can play the man's game, keep their dignity intact, and still con the man via his machismo to come across with a better than average tip. This kind of waitress would stand to lose by the imposition of a standard charge which is usually distributed equally among all personnel.

   There is the possibility of unionizing food service personnel. The union contract could demand that management would be responsible for the "atmosphere" of the establishment, and the dignified treatment of the employees. However, many waitresses are fearful of unionization. Some feel that unionization could threaten the advantages of flexible hours and good pay with limited training. Management might as a result respond by demanding more of the employees in the way of training, experience and more rigidly scheduled hours.

   There is another, slower path of action: waitresses could try to create a dialogue between themselves and their management. If all waitresses in one restaurant refused to be subjected to customer indignities, and insisted on discussing the problems of sexual harassment with the management, it is possible that the atmosphere of the restaurant could be so influenced that the indignities would cease.

   Unfortunately, we are a competitive society. Solving problems communally is just not our way. To make a point we usually have to start a fight. We need a courageous and assertive group of waitresses to bring a charge of battery against an habitually harassing customer. (Unwanted pinching, breast squeezing or kissing constitute battery!) A well-publicized case of battery would demonstrate the determination of a group of working women to insist upon their right to respect and to personal privacy. The momentum of those events could be used by groups of waitresses to make their move in a less hostile but firm manner-- insisting on being heard and on being respected.


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