What working as a restaurant hostess taught me about feminism

I am a hostess. I went to school for film, studied creative writing, had many an internship and many, many a dream about finding the perfect job immediately after graduation, but here I am. Five months post-grad and humbly working in a restaurant in my home-town, where I don’t appear to do any creative work whatsoever. However, lately I’ve been finding myself lost in observation (which can happen when a feature of your job is to literally stand there and look pretty) and for a writer, observing is half of the work.

In my few months in the service industry, I’ve assisted hundreds of people from all over the country, I’ve interacted with people of all colors and creeds, and my ever-alert inner feminist has often been uniformly disturbed by the behavior of my fellow female restaurant-goer. Here are just a few of the things I see every day that send my fierce, feminist heart into overdrive:

1) It’s time to stop apologizing: Ladies, we are constantly apologizing for everything, and that needs to stop. If you have a question, ask it. If you need assistance, tell me. If you want to sit at a different table, it’s my job to walk you around the entire restaurant if that’s what it takes to make you comfortable. But please, stop apologizing the moment you walk in the door. Very often, the first thing out of a woman’s mouth after I greet her is, “Sorry, I just need a table for two!” or “Sorry, can I look at a menu?” You don’t have to be sorry for having needs, and you definitely don’t have to be sorry for voicing them. Ladies who know what they want and aren’t afraid to ask are usually the ones who get what they want. Ask, and you shall receive; there’s no apology necessary in that equation.

2) We shouldn’t be afraid to speak up: Having the means to go out to eat in a restaurant is a privilege most people don’t view as such. Therefore, when the aforementioned privileged have to wait for a table, their senses of entitlement seem to expand rapidly. In many cases, this will lead to rudeness, complaints, and sometimes straight-up voice-raising directed at little ol’ me. The voice-raisers in question? Almost 100% of the time male. The wives/girlfriends/partners of the voice-raisers in question? Almost 100% of the time look on in disgust or embarrassment, shake their heads at me in empathy, or even return to me later, clandestinely, to apologize for the behavior of their loud-mouthed lovers.

I can, and often must, accept that a woman keeps quiet because she might not want to get involved. That detachment hurts much less than when it appears to me that she is silent because she is afraid to undermine her man by having an opinion. This is a betrayal of self-worth, a surrender of voice, an abandonment of personhood. It is a relinquishment of the best of you; it is defeat. I know you have things to say. I can see it. Please say them. Not for me, but for you. Say them so that you can stay you.

3) We have a name, so let’s use it: The ladies, and there are so, so, many- too many- apparently without names of their own. When a party arrives and wants to be added to the reservation list, I ask, “Can I have a name?” And even when the woman is the only one I’ve been speaking to, even when the woman is the only half of her couple to have arrived yet, even when it is a young woman, about my age, with a personality and a voice all her own, she tells me the name of her partner, her husband, her boyfriend. She says it as if her name would crash the system. She pauses when I ask, sputters out a first syllable, laughs it off, and then offers her man’s name, as if using her own name would be silly, a kind of ridiculous joke she can’t believe she just tried to pull.

And I smile and write it down, but I really want to say, “I asked for your name.” Sometimes, I’ll talk to a woman whose man is by her side. We have all the information taken care of, maybe we’ve even engaged in friendly small talk, and all that’s left is for me to take the name. When I ask, she’ll suddenly stop talking. She’ll look back at her man, who’s been silent the whole time, and he’ll step up and announce his name. I want to ignore him. I want to turn to her and say, “It’s okay to take charge. It’s only dinner.” But I don’t. I take it down, and I thank her, and I feel sad.

Of course, I’m not a perfect feminist. I don’t claim, or want, to be the voice of all feminists everywhere, nor do I think I’m a model of ideal female behavior. Perhaps it’s that I’m always on the lookout to learn from and about women, or perhaps it’s that I have a superior vantage point from my secured spot at the host stand. But in these small moments of interaction I have to witness every day, I find myself bursting at the seams with sympathy, advice, confusion, frustration, anger, love—sometimes, all at once. I want to help. I want to teach. I want to empower. I want to know your name.

Filed Under