“Because I’m dining alone this evening, I’ll need a particularly good table.” It’s a phrase that’s rarely failed me in 25 years.
I taught myself to say it when I was traveling solo on my first book tour.
For the first three weeks on the road, I was seated right next to bathrooms, ice machines, in dismal doorways or where servers would pile up the plates and cutlery.
Because I figured the only alternative was eating soggy club sandwiches alone in my room, I’d remain at the table even as swinging doors from the kitchen hit the chair across from me.
Only when I realized that I’d be shown to a dark corner table even when the venue was practically empty did I start to wise up. A woman alone didn’t deserve a nice table? Did they think I wouldn’t tip or order enough food? Maybe — and this was the funny part — they thought I wouldn’t order wine.
Justifications for the way unaccompanied women were treated with suspicion in the days of chaperones and bonnets were plentiful: She might be soliciting the attention of men. Even if she didn’t, she’d still lower the tone of the establishment. What would the respectable men and women think when they witnessed her solitude? Isn’t a woman alone disruptive even if she is silent and well-behaved?
A woman at a table by herself is the stuff of whispers and gossip. A man at a table by himself is the stuff of mystery and intrigue. She’s Shelley Winters; he’s George Clooney. People feel sorry for her; people feel envy for him.
This might explain why women often get what used to be called the bum’s rush: being served quickly so more desirable customers can replace them.
Last weekend, I stayed in a very old, very grand hotel, and I was very much on my own. I was delivering a keynote talk and was the guest of the group to which I was speaking. My husband often travels with me, but this time he couldn’t make it. That was fine — I’m a big girl and, when I’m traveling for business, I usually look forward to focusing my energy. For dinner, I went to a charming restaurant on the hotel property. I had high expectations and looked forward to a relaxing meal during which I could read and edit my speech.
And even now I still had to ask for a seat away from the back corner, which is where they initially placed me.
What’s the big deal? It’s a meal, not a marriage, right? It’s not a lifetime commitment.
And yet it’s emblematic of other ways that women without men are slighted. It’s tougher for women to get our coffee cups refilled, for example, than it is for our male counterparts. It’s tougher to be taken seriously. Even Rodney Dangerfield got more respect.
And women are responsible for some of this because we persist in saying that what is substandard is “just fine” because we don’t want to sound pushy or seem overbearing.
Women resist being labeled as demanding — as if being treated with respect is somehow unexpected and extravagant. Shouldn’t we possess enough self-esteem to know our worth as a customer and our value as a patron?
A woman’s cash is not discounted as if it’s some kind of foreign currency with a fluctuating exchange rate in comparison to the U.S. dollar.
We don’t get to spend in women’s money, so why shouldn’t we expect the same level of service as men? It’s not like women’s money is pink, scented and stamped with the words, “Only Worth 81 Cents, And That’s On A Good Day,” although that would be more honest.
If it’s within reason and within your means, you’re the one who has the ability to stay or go. Although you’re not responsible for what they offer you, you are responsible for what you’ll accept. That might mean learning to say “I’d like to wait until a better spot opens up before I’ll be seated. Thanks.”
Here’s to a table of one’s own: May it have a cheerful, attentive server and an interesting view.
Avoid the table next to the ice machine.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at UConn and author of “If You Lean In, Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse?” and eight other books. She can be reached at ginabarreca.com.