Of Women and Waiting: A Brief History
It will come as no shock to anyone that America’s bar and restaurant owners, at times, employ beautiful women on their staff in order to try and fill seats as well as their own pockets; however, the truth is far more complex than this generalization and a great deal more disturbing. The sexualization of waitressing – long one of this country’s most accessible professions - is part of a long arc of change that has been underway for women in the service industry for a very long time. Like everything else in today’s fast-paced society, these changes have been accelerating. Today more than one in three women report being sexually harassed while serving, and the resurgence of troubling employment practices is throwing fuel on the fire.[i] A toxic mix of economics, marketing, sex and greed are now combining to devise ever more controversial hiring, training and review methods; pushing the edge of both morality and law. How did we get here and what can be done about it?
What follows is the story of what these experiences have historically looked like for women in America. It’s about hard questions, blurred lines and some very concerning trends. Beauty, greed and sex have become ever more intertwined in a profession that is likely to touch the lives of more than half of today’s young women [ii]. Twas not always so.
Go West Young Woman: The Legend of the Harvey Girls
To be certain, young women have been serving food and refreshments for as long as food and drink have been served, but to get at the heart of how the lives of these women are rapidly changing today – to really understand the extent of the change - there can be no more useful starting place than Mr. Fred Harvey and his Harvey Girls. The year was 1873.
Not unlike many bar and restaurant owners today who dreamt of opening up a place of their own, Fred Harvey was a man who knew how to smell opportunity.
Fortunately for Mr. Harvey, however, his chosen setting was not some small high-traffic corner in Philadelphia or New York; in fact, his vision had little do with cities at all. The Harvey Empire would be built on wheels, wheels and independent young women.
After surviving one of the many yellow fever scares New Orleans experienced during the 19th century, Harvey turned to the relative safety and expanding profits that were available for bright young men in the nation’s railroad companies. Harvey was a man who knew good service when he saw it, and upon starting his career with the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, he could see it was in short supply. Half of Fred Harvey’s genius was in recognizing that the thousands of hard-pressed railroad passengers, who were enduring the long journey West, desperately needed better food and lodgings; the other half is what makes him important to us. His innovations would revolutionize travel in America.
Harvey Houses, as his new startup establishments would be known, were places where exhausted travelers could come to feel a sense of normalcy during their harsh Westward journey; they were the executive airport lounges of their day.
Normalcy, of course, depended on providing everything that a sophisticated man could expect back home, and that included the presence of sophisticated women. Ads soon began appearing up and down the Eastern seaboard, calling for educated and independent young women to staff America’s first-ever hotel and restaurant chain. Those who replied were in for an adventure.
Harvey knew full well that men who travelled the 19th century American West, regardless of class, seldom travelled with female company. He believed, rightly, that the mere presence of modest and educated young women at his establishments would likely be the factor that would make his business boom. The Harvey brand would be known across the country for its elegance, civility and comfort.
To get at the heart of these issues, one needs to understand the enormous gap between the opportunity that Fred Harvey was offering to the many young women who took him up on his offer to travel West and the experience that awaits that same class of women today. It’s a gap that spans more than just centuries.
The first Harvey Girls, as they came to be known, held some of the more lucrative positions available to women of their era. Each had at least a Grade 8 education and would be supplied with etiquette training by the company, if they had not received it already.[iii] In addition to the costs of their travel West, recruits received free room and board, as well as $17.50 per month ($438 in today’s terms). Their full-length black and white starched uniforms were elegant, but designed to diminish the female form.
Make-up was forbidden. Their safety and supervision was the responsibility of a House Mother, who saw to their curfew and the small amount of travel the enjoyed outside of work.
Some Harvey recruits returned to the East Coast with money enough to be able to chart their own future, still others chose not to return at all. The pursuit of a husband was still a big priority for many of the Harvey Girls, but when marriage options presented themselves, they could be pursued with far more freedom and independence; certainly more than most of their contemporaries back East enjoyed.
So inspirational was the Harvey story that it was made into a novel in 1942, and in 1946 was turned into a major motion picture musical by MGM, The Harvey Girls, staring Judy Garland and Angela Lansbury. However, even this fairy-tale has a questionable ending.
The idealistic Mr. Harvey exhibited less and less control over his family’s empire by the end of the 19th century and died in 1901. By 1926, the automobile had begun to eat away at the rail ridership on which the Harvey Company’s infrastructure was built. In an effort to draw men back to its properties, the Harvey chains began running “Indian Tours”, a series of motor coach excursions to supposed aboriginal villages operating from Harvey hotels and train stations. These seemingly exotic destinations were usually staffed by actors and the tours led by young women in new form-fitting uniforms. The economic pressures that drove the adoption this new edgier business plan would win out in the end, and it wasn’t long thereafter that the Harvey Company joined its founder in the grave. Developments like these would have likely made Fred Harvey very restless indeed, but if so, its probably best he wasn’t around to witness what happened next. Mr. Harvey, one feels, would not have dealt well with the 1960’s.
Don’t Hate The Playboy - Hate The Game: The Gloria Steinem Story
The game, the series of sexually charged recruiting, hiring, training and evaluation practices that young women continue to endure was first reported on in depth in 1962 by an intrepid young columnist for Show magazine [iv] named Gloria Steinem. Steinem, who by the 1970’s would be a recognized national leader of the Women’s Liberation Movement, was interested in going behind the scenes at the exclusive and ultra-private Playboy Club. The story of her experiences would later be portrayed by actress Kirstie Ally in the 1985 film A Bunny’s Tale. Her target was the empire of a man who held a set of values rather different from those Fred Harvey espoused in 1873.
Hugh Hefner founded HMH Publishing in 1953 for the express purpose of distributing Playboy magazine. [v] He was able to raise $8000 for the project from 45 different investors, including his mother. By the 1960’s the Playboy brand had boomed to such an extent that the company’s reach had expanded into hotels, casinos the men’s social clubs for which Gloria Steinem was now eagerly seeking employment as a Playboy Bunny.
Steinem’s adventures make compelling reading for a number of reasons. Firstly, as an under-cover Bunny, Steinem was forced to endure a horrific vetting process, the worst aspects of which mercifully became extinct following her expose. In the opening days of her application for bunnyhood, Steinem was asked to complete a physical at the office of a male doctor who was under contract with the Playboy Club. The physical included a blood test and gynecology exam so, as the doctor explained, “you’ll know that everyone else working at the club is clean.”
This disturbing statement left a nervous Steinem wondering exactly why the sexual health of her fellow Bunnies should be any concern of hers. Her answer wasn’t long in coming.
During her thorough search of the Playboy Bunny Employee Handbook – yes there is one – it was discovered that the Playboy Club took extraordinary measures to make sure that its servers did not socialize with clients outside of the club; up to a point. As it turned out, it was easy for visitors to the club to fantasize about taking a Playboy Bunny home with them, because for a select group of patrons those fantasies were coming true.
I was fitted for false eyelashes today at Larry Mathews’, a 24-hour-a-day beauty salon in a West Side hotel. As she feathered the eyelashes with a pair of manicure scissors, my makeup expert pointed out a girl who had just been fired from the Club “because she wouldn’t go out with a Number One key-holder.” But aren’t we forbidden to go out with customers? “You can go out with them if they’ve got Number One keys,” the beauty shop girl explained. “They’re for Club management and reporters and big shots like that.”
The shocking implications of the Playboy Club’s “Number One Key” policy not withstanding, it is the many lesser horrors that Steinem discovered during her work that will be of interest here; the ones that have survived and whose rapid reemergence fills the bulk of the pages to come. At the heart of these issues were specific demands made in the girls’ employee handbook, requiring them to endure all manner of customer harassment, and even to encourage it, through open flirtation.
Bunnies are reminded that there are many pleasing means they can employ to stimulate the Club’s liquor volume, thereby increasing their earnings significantly… The key to selling more drinks is Customer Contact… they will respond particularly to your efforts to be friendly.
As Steinem made clear in her expose, ‘there is a problem with being “friendly” and “papering” to a customer, while at the same time refusing to go out with him, or even give him your last name.’
In this Steinem was being too gracious; using the words “friendly” and “pampering” when the words “pleasing” and “stimulate” appear in the black and white of the employee manual. The problem she is referring to, of course, is not simply drawing lines with customers. The difficulty practices like these impose is that they create pressures that push a club’s employees closer and closer to that line, while at the same time creating a class of customer that is unlikely to recognize a line exists at all. Fifty years later, it’s a problem that is resurfacing to affect not hundreds, but millions of young women.
Bunnies at the Playboy Club’s various locations were graded nightly on their dress, serving, sales and “customer contact." They were being watched, quite literally, all the time. The Playboy club employed a private detective service, the Wilmark Agency, to ensure that the girls did not socialize outside the club with any customers the management had not already approved. In addition, the Agency provided plain clothes agents inside the club on most nights to insure that the girls maintained the exacting standards of dress and behavior the club demanded. “Of course,” as Steinem’s Bunny Handbook explained, “you never know when you are being checked out by a Wilmark Service representative." Unlike Steinem’s doctor visits, the practice of planting agents to evaluate servers hasn’t gone away, in today’s lingo these mystery men are known as ghost customers.
If any of the female employees of the Playboy Club were found to be out of compliance, they were issued with demerits, the cash value of which were always “determined by the General Manager of each club.” Repeat offenders were quickly dismissed and replaced by a seemingly endless supply of eager young applicants.
The demanding behavior and appearance standards served to reinforce the atmosphere the club wanted; one that kept their male clients immersed in a swirl of intoxication, beauty and sex appeal. The fact that the combination of these factors produced an absolutely appalling set of conditions for the Club’s female staff was never acknowledged, nor, seemingly, ever considered. As the opening lines of the Playboy Bunny Handbook read “You’re holding the top job in the country for a young girl.”
The important thing to remember about Gloria Steinem’s exploits at the Playboy Club is that they were groundbreaking precisely because of the cloak of secrecy she was able to penetrate. In 1962, the practices at the Playboy Club were as taboo as the lifestyle Hugh Hefner promoted, and the concerning stories she uncovered were still shocking because they were so exceptionally rare. The 1960’s were still not an easy time to be a woman in America, but across the country waitressing remained an accessible and largely non-threatening line of work. To get their daily dose of eye-candy, most American men would be stuck consulting the pages of their Playboy magazines, at least until the 1980’s.
Cometh The Owl – Cometh The Men: A Hooters History
Unconscionable. [vi] That was how a 1999 court ruling referred to the practices at Hooters of America. A rather damning indictment of a concept that started out as a hair-brained idea amongst a group of six friends one April Fools Day in 1983. The six “gentlemen” responsible for the Hooters phenomenon decided to open their own place on Clearwater Beach in Florida because, “they needed a place they wouldn’t be thrown out of” [vii]. On a lark, one of the Hooters Six set upon the idea of convincing the winner of a local swimsuit contest to become their first “Hooters Girl”.
The adoption of the now famous tank-top and orange short-shorts uniform quickly followed. Unbeknownst to the group, they had, literally, hit on a hugely profitable idea. The Hooters Girl would go on to become one of the most well-known and controversial icons in American business.
Though this essay takes direct aim at many of the practices that Hooters has championed over the years, they do get a pass in one important area. Hooters has never claimed to be anything other than what they are, a bar and restaurant chain chiefly concerned with marketing the sex appeal of its female employees. That claim is largely what has spared them from the wrath of civil rights courts over the years. Gone was the thin veil of secrecy that surrounded the goings on at the Playboy Club decades earlier. The Hooters story would play out in the clear light of day, leaving the American people to decide for themselves whether the concept would draw more men then it repulsed; and it drew them in their millions.
One of the key legal defenses that the company has consistently been able use is that they are not a business primarily focused on food. Hooters waitresses are playing a role, like a scantily clad beer delivering actress. The food is more of an afterthought, as anyone who has eaten there will tell you. Hooters was selling sex as a commodity. Men were willing to pay for it and there were no shortage of young women, seemingly, who were willing to provide it. In the years to come, Hooters would open their own casinos, their own arena football team, even their own airline. The plan was a simple one, the profits enormous. The only problem with this gold-plated model was that it may not have been entirely legal.
Surely it was only a matter of time before the company would have to defend its ideas in court. The obvious question that had to be asked was, is it legal for a bar or restaurant to staff its properties exclusively with beautiful young women? Over the years the company would fight savagely to retain its right to hire “Hooters Girls”, which it rightfully believed were at the center of its business model. This has included some rather artful dodging.
In 1999, three men from the Chicago area sued a Hooters branch in Illinois for being denied employment based on their gender. Rather than risk any threat to their ability to hire and promote their signature girls, Hooters of America settled out of court and sidestepped the issue by agreeing to create new positions, behind the bar or as hosts, which would be open to both sexes. Despite this, and numerous other suits over the course of decades, no one has ever been able to successfully challenge the legality of the Hooters Girl idea, so most of the recent litigation against Hooters has dealt with questions surrounding the treatment of the women they do employ, rather than the why they employ them. Here is where the truly “unconscionable” part comes in.
In 1999 a young woman name Rachel Garrett began working at a Hooters branch in Toledo, Ohio. She started work just weeks before Hooters of America implemented a new policy to help “resolve’ the many disputes that had been arising with its mostly female employees. The new rules called for all Hooters employees to sign an “Agreement to Mediate or Arbitrate Employment-Related Disputes” (ADR). Mediation and arbitration are well known devices in legal circles because they represent the first two stepping-stones on the way to civil litigation.
In the case of the new Hooters system, however, an employee who signed the agreement could only take their case as far as a binding arbitration session; one that they would have to help pay the costs for out of their salaries. The agreement effectively banned Hooters employees from pursuing action against the company in court. No more lawsuits. Furthermore, the agreement made clear that employees had only ten days to request that their concern be taken up in mediation, otherwise it would be considered null and void. In the case of Rachel Garrett, her manager told her that she couldn’t work another day until the agreement had her signature on it. She signed.
In June of 2002, Garrett informed her manager that she had become pregnant and asked if she would be allowed to wear a modified uniform at work; that request was denied and the restaurant fired her a few days later. When a distraught Garrett moved to sue Hooters, the company immediately sought to quash the lawsuit, citing the ADR agreement the young woman had signed. According to the document, no matter how disgraceful her dismissal had been, Garrett had no right to sue. For all the reasons you might expect, the Northern District of Ohio Court ruled that the ADR agreement Hooters had forced on its employees was not only illegal, it was “unconscionable”.
Specifically, the court held that the mediation requirement was "unreasonable and unfair.., and unjustifiably favorable to Hooters," that the ten-day time limit for filing a claim was likewise "unfair and unreasonable," and that the Agreement was procedurally unconscionable given the unequal bargaining power between the parties, the plaintiffs lack of sophistication, and the overt pressure on the plaintiff to accept the Agreement.”
Case closed. Except that the horrendous working environment that the new Hooters policy had been meant to conceal, continued unabated. Covering up has never been high on the Hooters priority list, but those running the company were proving far more adept at it than their serving staff. Such tales barely scratch the surface.
In 2010, Alissa Blanton was stalked and killed by a Hooters customer that she had met on duty, while she worked at the company’s location in Merrit Island, Florida. [viii] To escape her situation Blanton had eventually left the restaurant, married and moved cities. Two years later, and just weeks before her murder, she swore out a 71-page restraining order request, which included copies of threatening e-mails, tales of terrifying face-to-face confrontations and a back story chronicling her stalker’s increasingly head-strong attempts to spend time with her in and around her work at Hooters. Unbelievably, the presiding Florida judge denied her request.
In an article that appeared in the Orlando Sentinel during the aftermath of the tragedy, Carol Gillam, a long-time Florida employment lawyer made the case that the company may well have had a deeper set of responsibilities to its signature girls.
"I think you could argue that an employer that sells sex in any way, maybe along with hamburgers and a beer, may have more of an obligation to protect its employees," Gillam said.
When one thinks of the way dancers or cocktail waitresses are protected at a Las Vegas Casino, surrounded by cameras and small armies of security guards, its hard not to agree with Gillam’s view.
The most important thing to understand, though, about the shameful attempts by Hooters to avoid responsibility can’t be found from studying the case of Rachel Garrett or even the tragic case of Alissa Blanton. All of their defensive efforts are aimed at guarding the company against a future lawsuit by a young woman whom no one has, as yet, been able to find. I like to call her Waitress Zero.
* * *
Calling Waitress Zero
The threat from Waitress Zero doesn’t come from the outside, from the work of some activist or through the efforts of a big labor union. Over the years, Hooters and their ilk have become far too adept at justifying the need to hire their trademark young serving girls. No, her’s will be an inside job.
When Waitress Zero appears it will be in a Hooters Girl costume, like a dazzling orange and white Supergirl. To change the trends we’ve discussed, Waitress Zero will have to successfully win a lawsuit against her employer, but not because of their hiring practices or some other abuse by her management. Her victory will come when a court rules that sexual harassments she suffered were inherent in the hostile work environment her bosses sculpted around her and that those same bosses bare some responsibility for the outcome they helped create. The court will rule that unless Hooters and the growing hoard of likeminded companies take steps to provide increased safety and security for the women they market, then those sexualized working environments will be deemed overly hostile by default and will not be allowed to continue. Then, Waitress Zero can hang up her tank-top and move on to her next challenge, she is badly needed elsewhere. But at least for a time, corporations might begin to think twice before wholeheartedly embracing the sexualization of such an important occupation.
Until then, millions of American women will be watching for their hero, hoping for change… and waiting.
[i] "Tipped Over the Edge – Gender Inequity in the Restaurant Industry." ROC. The Restaurant Opportunity Centre, 12 Jan. 2012. Web. 03 July 2014.
[ii] Reinventing Low Wage Work: The Restaurant Industry in the United States." The Aspen Institute (2012): n. pag. 12 Mar. 2012. Web. 24 June 2014.
[iii] Poling-Kempes, Lesley. The Harvey Girls: Women Who Opened the West. New York: Paragon House, 1989. Print.
[iv] Steinem, A., Ms. "A Bunny's Tale." Show Magazine (1963): 90-100. Rpt. in Undercover Reporting. N.p.: n.p., n.d. New York University Digital Archives. Web. 24 June 2014.
[v] Mcgrath, Charles. "How Hef Got His Groove Back." The New York Times. The New York Times, 05 Feb. 2011. Web. 24 June 2014.
[vi] Ralph, Jennifer M., Ms. "Unconscionable Mediation Clauses." The Harvard Negotiation Law Review 10.383 (2005): 383-400. Web.
[vii] "Hooters - The Original." Hooters The Original Hooters History Comments. Hooters of America, n.d. Web. 25 June 2014.
[viii] Willoughby, Mariano, Ms., and Sarah Lundy, Ms. "Alissa Blanton Murder-suicide: Does Selling Sex Appeal Raise Risks to Workers?" Orlando Sentinel. N.p., 13 Feb. 2010. Web. 25 June 2014.
About the author:
Jeff Hull holds degrees from Mt. Allison University, The University of Strathclyde and a Masters of Arts degree of the University of Athabasca. He wrote his first story at the age five about a horse named Silver. It turned out to be a copyright infringement. Jeff has passions stretching from the sport of rugby to comics and pop-culture, but became fascinated with the the lives of women in waitressing during his masters research. Of Women and Waiting became a labor of love, which he hopes you enjoy reading. Follow Jeff on Twitter: @HullatHome