Monday, November 19, 2012

The Girl Can't Help It

I love oral histories, so I'm currently reading Alison Owings's Hey, Waitress! The USA from the Other Side of the Tray (University of California Press, 2002).  Most of the book is derived from interviews with thirty-five women who've worked on that side of the tray, and it's fascinating.  But then I tripped over something that bugged me a little -- not enough to make me want to stop reading, but enough that I'm taking time out to write about it.

In the 1970s Cathryn Anita Smith broke through the sex barrier at La Côte Basque, a celebrated French restaurant in New York City. It took a protracted legal battle, but she succeeded, and her story is a delight.  As usual, Smith had to make herself much more competent than most of her male co-workers to be considered half as good, but she managed it.  (Luckily, as the old joke has it, it wasn't that difficult.)
"In the period when they refused to work with me, they hired another waiter to work with me.  He hit me once.  We were having a little confrontation about a check.  I told him the table needed a check, and he hadn't put it down.  We were in the stairwell, and I had a tray, and he went like ..."  She mimed a smash to her stomach.  "He hit me right here. It so happened that one Italian waiter saw it.  He stood up for me.  I ran to the men's locker room, and they were trying to get him to say he hadn't seen it.  But, 'I'm sick of it.  I saw it.  He hit her'" [80].
Stories like this are interesting because it's official lore that Men Don't Hit Women.  But they do anyway, and they always have, especially when a woman refuses to stay in her place.  I once had a curious online exchange with a guy who was claiming that a woman couldn't play football with men, because the men have been conditioned not to hit women, so they won't be able to bring themselves to tackle her.  Maybe not, but football players of the highest calibre (we'll never know just how many) have been able to break that conditioning to beat the shit out of the women they love.  Masculine solidarity then requires that they cover for each other.

But I digress.  On the legal basis for Smith's case, Owings explains (75):
One of the best-known parts of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Title VII essentially says employers cannot refuse jobs to people based on matters not of their choosing, such as sex or skin color.
Le sigh.  I've been through this beforeTitle VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act also forbids jobs discrimination based on religion, which is a matter of one's choosing.  As far as I can tell, the Civil Rights Act doesn't explain the basis for its prohibition of discrimination, but I always had the impression that what was at issue was whether a given trait or condition affected one's ability to do the job.  This is why it's okay for the NBA to discriminate, as I presume it does, on the basis of height.  There must a religious exemption in there somewhere, though, because the Roman Catholic Church need not ordain women as priests, nor even non-Catholic males.

As I said, this minor issue doesn't make me want to stop reading Hey, Waitress!  But it does bother me.  When did it become common sense that civil rights laws were meant to protect people who didn't choose their disgusting condition, it's not their fault, they can't help themselves, they were born this way?  Given the general level of ignorance and misinformation about civil rights and discrimination, plus continuing racism and other kinds of bigotry, I suspect this lore was invented by people who didn't know what it was all about and didn't really want to know.  That's obviously the case with affirmative action.  But I'm still surprised and dispirited when someone who's clearly smart enough to know better doesn't get it.