When Nell returned to the breakroom, her waitress’ apron was full of money. Her coworkers, spotting the dollar bills, laughed. “Them ain’t tips,” said one waitress. “Them is dates, ain’t they, Nell?”

Nell displayed the cash to her friends. “Sure,” she said. “Be thankful for a dollar in these hard times!” Nell wasn’t the only waitress in the Chicago restaurant who found herself turning to some form of sex work, from casual dates in exchange for clothes or gifts, to sex acts in exchange for money. There was Marietta, who went on dates and engaged in other “unquotable” activities for tulips and candy, and Daisy, who beefed up her meager tips with sex acts under the table. But the sexualization wasn’t always so overt. As the women smoothed on their uniforms for another backbreaking shift, they knew a simple truth: If you want your tips, you’d better smile.

The year was 1917, and the waitresses worked in one of the many casual restaurants multiplying on Chicago’s streets. Frances Donovan, a University of Chicago-trained school teacher and sociologist, had gone undercover to work among them. The result: The Woman Who Waits, a groundbreaking ethnography of the early restaurant industry published in 1920. But read through Donovan’s book on the relationship between sexuality and tips, and you may well feel you’re reading the news.

“When you are hired as a waitress, it might as well be a part of the manual. You will be sexually harassed,” Alison Baker, a server at a Mexican restaurant in Chicago, told The Guardian in 2017. “You are relying on this person for your wage, so you can’t say anything.” Since the #MeToo movement swept American workplaces in 2017, stories like Baker’s have increasingly made the news. It’s no wonder: Restaurant workers are stunningly vulnerable to sexual harassment, with 80 percent of women servers reporting sexual harassment from customers, two-thirds from managers, and half from other staff. With a national tipped minimum wage of $2.13 an hour, many servers such as Baker often feel compelled to put up with unwanted sexualization—from lewd comments to sexual assault.

But the history of sexual harassment in waitressing goes deeper than tipping. Since the days of colonial taverns, women who serve have often been considered—by government officials, customers, and even courts—sexually available. For some servers, unwanted sexual attention was an unfortunate reality of the workplace. For others, like the waitresses who offered both liquor and sexual services in Gilded Age saloons, sex work was part of the job description. From steamy dance halls to staid lunch counters, sexual harassment and sex work are deeply entrenched in the history of America’s restaurants.

Read the Full Article:

When American Waitresses Were Labeled ‘Women of Ill Repute’ by Reina Gattuso

Sept. 16, 2019