It’s Still Radical For a Woman to Be Alone
Why has the image of a solitary woman historically elicited a range of emotions, from sympathy to suspicion and fear?
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“I have never known a female dining critic,” a reader wrote to me in an email. “Male critics could alway [sic] eat alone. Can you do the same? Dining out is a couples thing and it seems strange that the girl pulls out her own credit card.”
There was a lot to roll my eyes at here. Raised on Free to Be You and Me in the 1970s, I never once thought there was anything special about dining by myself as a woman. Of course, I have experienced sexism and the grip of the patriarchy—never more flagrantly than in the past two years, when our regressive administration has given the nation a blank check on misogyny—but I was raised to expect growing equality and progress, an expectation that has turned out to be naïve.
Women in the U.S. have been able to get our own credit cards since 1974, two years after my birth. That is at once a very long time and not very long at all. I do frequently pay with my own credit card, which has my name on it—the only name I’ve ever had, since I was uninterested in changing my surname upon marriage. And there have surely been hundreds of female dining critics, including my immediate predecessor at The Sacramento Bee, where I currently hold the post, not to mention such luminaries as Ruth Reichl, Mimi Sheraton, and Phyllis Richman. Besides, I almost never dine alone as a reviewer; I need to take others with me to taste a range of dishes.
This comment came at the end of an otherwise complimentary message about a restaurant review I’d written, an unapologetic pan of an overpriced downtown steakhouse. In it, I compared the restaurant to the Trump administration. I expected angry letters about that comparison, but I didn’t get any. What I didn’t expect was a response that would question my literal and figurative place at the table.
Women alone in public spaces have always been a vexed, threatening issue—though putting the question as an “issue” assumes a male point of view and a sidelining of women as fully equal humans, much as Virginia Woolf points out about her British Museum search for viewpoints on “women and fiction” in A Room of One’s Own. For such male thinkers, Woolf writes, “women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size. Without that power probably the earth would still be swamp and jungle.”
Such a fundamentally masculine viewpoint assumes the protection of men is a default for we ladies. To put it a different way, shifting it to my own point of view, we women have long been vexed and threatened for daring to be by ourselves, to claim solitude, to free ourselves from chaperonage and being part of “a couples thing,” as my correspondent would have it.
What does it mean to be a woman alone, both in the past (where my correspondent would seem to live) and now? In the recent past, the phrase “a woman alone” calls up one indelible image for me: the unutterably brave and solitary figure of Christine Blasey Ford, gathering her breath and courage as she stood, a sentinel for truth, in front of a panel of powerful men who doubted her and less powerful women who assured her she wasn’t alone. But in that crucial moment, she was. She endured her assault alone, more than three decades ago, while even her assaulter was with a friend, laughing at her expense. She spoke out for justice alone when she came forward, and she testified alone, treated as the one who was on trial rather than as the victim.
Women alone are always simultaneously both threatening and threatened, a strange paradox for those of us who like our solitude and feel comfortable—mostly—running, walking, going to the movies, or dining by ourselves. The idea that women—above a certain class, anyway—might be alone in public as a matter, of course, is a relatively recent one in western culture. Chaperones were de rigueur to protect the womanhood of the middle classes and up before the First World War. (Factory girls and working-class women, of course, were not considered virtuous enough to need protecting, which tells you something about how important the capitalistic element has always been to the big complex of patriarchal capitalism.)
In the early 19th century, Anglophone cultures, both British and American, considered it a scandal for even a married woman, accompanied by her spouse, simply to be in a restaurant, which was at that time mostly a dubious (if fashionable) invention of the always-suspect French. One British visitor “was certain that it was because French women had none of British womanhood’s ‘delicacy, decency, and modesty,’ that they so brazenly dined in public,” writes Rebecca Spang in The Invention of the Restaurant. And forget about pulling out a credit card, or the 19th-century equivalent: Women did not have basic property rights in Britain or America until late in the century.
Spang argues that seeing women in restaurants confirmed for Anglophone travelers what they already suspected: “domesticity was unknown in France.” In the 19th century, strict lines between public and private spheres held, at least in Britain and America, though of course there must have been times when women found time and space to be by themselves.
Those lines blurred more rapidly in the 20th century, as chaperonage fell out of favor and women demanded more independence. Changing mores and, not coincidentally, a severe shortage of men after the carnage of World War I may have spurred on these changes. To return to Virginia Woolf, a sense of the new thrill of aloneness comes through clearly in the opening pages of Mrs. Dalloway, when the lady of the house ventures out—alone—to buy the flowers herself. This act might have had particular resonance as a break with tradition given that in Victorian times flower selling was associated with sex work or at least lack of virtue—an implication that echoes through, for example, Shaw’s Pygmalion (1913) and its musical adaptation My Fair Lady. The idea that a woman by herself might just be seeking (or selling) sex—or, alternatively and yet somehow at the same time, in danger of sexual violence—is key.
Suspicion of what women might be up to, all by themselves, lingered on. The great M.F.K Fisher writes about dining alone in an essay in Serve It Forth (1937) and again in a more personal, intimate piece, “A Is for Dining Alone” in 1949’s An Alphabet for Gourmets. In the earlier essay, she writes of Lucullus and Louis XVI before settling in, rather sweetly, to the story of Biddy, a teenager who takes a tram into town, refusing to tell her mother where, and returns several hours later: “She was vaguer than usual, but seemed to be unharmed.” (Another gesture to the danger of aloneness. Biddy, it turns out, has gone to a Viennese restaurant to eat tarts and drink coffee over a four-hour breakfast, and she is thrilled and slightly defiant about her adventure. “Biddy breakfasted with Biddy, and saw in a mirror clearly, for the first of many times,” Fisher writes.
Fisher’s outlook is a bit more misanthropic in her 1949 piece. Single, she tries a long period of eating at restaurants: “I resolved to establish myself as a well-behaved female at one or two good restaurants, where I could dine alone at a pleasant table with adequate attentions,” she writes. “To my credit, I managed to carry out this resolution, at least to the point where two headwaiters accepted me: they knew I tipped well, they knew I wanted simple but excellent menus, and above all, they knew that I could order and drink, all by myself, an aperitif and a small bottle of wine or a mug of ale, without turning into a maudlin, potential pick-up for the Gentleman at the Bar.” Fisher positions herself here as a threat: by virtue (or vice) of being alone in public, the woman may signal her loose sexuality. But she is also threatened, or at least her solitude is. On the same page, Fisher brings her own experiment with frequent solitary dining out to an end: “In spite of the loyalty of my waiter-friends, wolves in a dozen different kinds of sheep’s clothing—from the normally lecherous to the lesbian—sniffed at the high wall of my isolation.” A woman alone in a restaurant was, and maybe still is, damned if she did want to pick up a man and damned if she didn’t want to be picked up.
When I was asked whether I was able to dine alone, I thought immediately of my paternal grandmother, Marjorie Matthews. Born in 1909 in the small town I later grew up in, as she turned 30 she was (unusually for her time) still single, teaching English at the local high school she’d graduated from and the holder of an M.A. from U.C. Berkeley. In the summer of 1939, she took a solo trip to England from her small California hometown, looking for adventure and literary landmarks. I have her letters home to her mother, of which a frequent theme is assuring her mother that she was meeting up with acquaintances to squire her such places as the World’s Fair in New York. (Her journal is slightly more frank about men trying to pick her up.)
As anyone dazzled by literary culture might have at the time, she stayed at the Algonquin in New York before sailing on to England. She recorded a small cut of sexism, there at the establishment Dorothy Parker had reigned over a few years before, in her diary: “The bar is small and beautifully decorated; ladies can’t sit at the bar proper—I know for I sauntered in and climbed up on a stool only to have the bartender in hushed and shocked tones ask me to remove myself to a table. ‘Young ladies didn’t sit at the bar!’ Had a good Manhattan anyhow—for 50¢.” She seems more offended by the price of the drink than by this one tiny long-forgotten indignity from a vast patriarchal system, but the incident has stuck in my mind all the same.
It would be easy to dismiss the idea that “ladies can’t sit at the bar!” and the patronizing, well-meant message from my correspondent as just out-of-touch remnants of a disintegrating system of patriarchy. I was tempted just to laugh, take the compliment from the email. After all, he said he liked my writing, albeit with a faint air of Samuel Johnson’s comparison of a woman preaching to a dog walking on its hind legs.
Probably I should just scroll on, feeling grateful the message wasn’t outright abusive, as so many responses to women writing are. “But what do I know,” my correspondent concluded, before advising me to become a feature writer. (Presumably, so I can earn some pin money? Not to worry, my man, I’m on it.) Not much, I thought to myself.
But maybe he does know something that I in my onetime adolescent assumptions of equality and progress on gender forgot about—something the past weeks and years of rampant public misogyny, shaming, and the loud brutish voices of abusers and apologists for abusers and deniers of abuse have underscored for me. The broader culture may still not know what to do with a woman alone, even in such a seemingly low-stakes setting as a restaurant. But whether we are threatened or threatening, alone or with others, at the bar or on the witness stand, patriarchy has left us very much on our own.
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