Segregating Restaurants: How Women Got a Seat at the Table

Woman eating in a restaurantWoman eating in a restaurant. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Racial discrimination at lunch counters was once a common problem, especially in the American South. Peaceful protests in the 1950s and 1960s shined a light on the practice and eventually the government stepped in to end it. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned whites-only lunch counters and discrimination in restaurants and other “places of public accommodation.” Several great online projects and archives have documented the fight to desegregate the lunch counters. But there was another sort of discrimination in restaurants and bars that lasted long after the Civil Rights Movement: that against women.

Excluding women from restaurants or at least from sections of restaurants was a regular practice for the many places where men held lunch meetings. Some restaurants kept women out entirely; some had special rooms or bars that excluded women; and others only excluded women at the lunch hour, noon-3pm, for example. The argument behind their exclusion was that men only had a limited time to eat lunch and women would monopolize tables as they gossiped and ate slowly. It was assumed that men would have a working lunch, which demanded efficiency. Having women in the room could slow down the process.

By the 1960s, in several cities, women began to question the discriminatory practice and took a stand against it. In 1968, Miami feminist Roxcy Bolton met with the managers of local restaurants to explain why male-only eateries were problematic. At the time, Burdine’s Department Store included the restaurant: the Men’s Grille. Bolton wrote letters concerning the practice and met with the store’s management. She complained about the exclusion of women, especially because they were the main shoppers. Following the meeting, one of the store’s vice presidents wrote a letter to Bolton indicating they were instituting a change. “We have made the decision to change the name, and the ‘men only’ concept, as expeditiously as possible,” he explained. “We have ordered the signs to be changed, and they are to state ‘Executive Grille’ with no references to restrictions as to male or female usage.”

The owner of another Florida restaurant, the Tower Club at the top of the Landmark Bank building, was thinking about excluding women when Fort Lauderdale News’ women’s page editor Edee Greene heard about it. A longtime advocate for women, she decided to take a stand. She recruited Virginia Shuman Young, the first female mayor of the city, to assist with her campaign. “When we heard it was going to be a restaurant for men,” Greene said, “we told the owner that if he tried it he’d have two grandmothers picketing on the sidewalk.” The male-only policy was changed.

In February 1969, the National Organization for Women proclaimed “Public Accommodations Week,” and held national actions at “men only” restaurants, bars, and public transportation. The Berghoff in Chicago, for example, had long had a men’s only bar. That practice ended when several members of N.O.W. went to the bar at Berghoff and demanded service. Milwaukee members of N.O.W. successfully fought to integrate the men’s only section of Heinemann’s Restaurant.

The restaurant community has often excluded women – particularly if there was a bar involved. In August of 1970, New York City establishment McSorley’s Old Ale House was forced to admit women for the first time in the bar’s 116-year history. In 1969, Attorney Faith Seidenberg sued to gain access to McSorley’s and won in federal court. The following year, women were allowed into the bar after Mayor John Lindsay signed a bill prohibiting discrimination in public places because of gender. A New York Times article with a female byline noted that the women initially “drank peaceably” after being admitted. Then Lucy Komisar, a vice president of the National Organization for Women, arrived. The bartender refused to accept her driver’s license as proof that she was over age 18 and demanded her birth certificate instead. The two engaged in a short wrestling match before the manager allowed her in to a chorus of “boos” from regular patrons. Later, an angry man poured his stein of ale over her head.

Bars and restaurants were not alone in creating exclusionary policies. Actual laws existed in some places that restricted where and how women could dine and drink. Louisville, Kentucky, for example, had an ordinance forbidding women from drinking alcohol at the bar in restaurants. Louisville Courier-Journal editor Keith Runyon recalled the Board of Alderman finally changed the city law in 1970 and several of the female journalists, including women’s page editor Carol Sutton, made it a point to lunch at the famed Mazzoni’s that day. “Carol took pleasure in ordering me, the only male in the party, a martini and carrying it over to our table. She stood at the bar, I sat.”

About the Author

Kimberly Wilmot Voss

Kimberly Wilmot Voss, PhD, is a tenured associate professor of journalism at the University of Central Florida, where she teaches media law and journalism history and coordinates the journalism program. She is the author of The Food Section: Newspaper Women and the Culinary Community (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014) and a co-author of Mad Men & Working Women: Feminist Perspectives on Historical Power, Resistance, and Otherness (Peter Lang, 2014). She is the winner of the 2014 Carol DeMasters Award for Service to Food Journalism given by the Association of Food Journalism.

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1 Comment

  1. This is a fascinating piece. I had never thought of the exclusion of women in the context of segregation. And now I will never be able to think of it any other way. Thanks for this.

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