The Feminist Lunch That Broke Boundaries 150 Years Ago



Delmonico’s, NYC – 1888

From Atlas Obscura by Anne Ewbank:

ON APRIL 20, 1868, A dozen women filed into Delmonico’s. The New York restaurant was the most famous in America, and the women were all middle- and and upper-class. But many of the women worked, which was an anomaly in the mid-19th century. And their lunch was even more of an anomaly: It was the first time American women deliberately dined in the public eye without the accompaniment of men.

At the time, American society was strictly segregated by sex, and the streets were a male sphere. A middle- or upper-class woman alone in public attracted intense attention, and working women were often invisible. For all women, a male companion was a necessary ticket into a restaurant. (Private dining rooms where solitary women could eat out of sight were the norm, and only for the most elite women.) According to food historian Paul Freedman, very few establishments accommodated women shoppers and travelers. In 1850s New York, for example, only a handful of ice cream “saloons” allowed women to eat by themselves.

But in 1868, reporter Jane Cunningham Croly was fed up. Charles Dickens was touring the United States, and the New York Press Club threw a dinner in his honor at Delmonico’s. Croly wanted to attend the Dickens dinner, scheduled for April 18. But the Press Club refused, even though she was a member. After she protested, the Club leadership relented, but they insisted that she and other female members stay behind a curtain where they could be neither seen nor heard.

Read the rest of the article at Atlas Obscura


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