Once upon a time I hit a man. He wasn’t someone I knew. He was unarmed, unintimidating, and sitting down, while I was standing up. There were lots of other people around, and I didn’t feel I was in any physical danger. So why did I, an avowedly non-violent, non-confrontational person, backhand this guy?
Let me set the scene: a Saturday night in a 70’s era, big-city private club. The place was locally famous for its exclusivity, its glass dance floor where patrons could disco until the wee hours, and its not-really-hidden entrance. I worked there as a cocktail waitress.
I was in a graduate acting program, serving drinks for the same reasons as many a young actor. The hours were crazy, but they fit with my schedule of classes and rehearsals. The official pay was next to nothing, but the cash tips were more than I could have made anywhere else, at least legally. And unlike other such gigs, my uniform was almost dignified. Black slacks, a long-sleeved, peach-colored shirt of the slithery knit fabric so beloved in that decade, and normal shoes. No bunny suit, no push-up bustier, no teensy skirt, no tortuous stilleto heels. Just the ineradicable smell of cigarette smoke wafting up from the ironing board, no matter how often I laundered my work outfit.
The 70s were a tricksy time to be a young woman, not that it’s ever been easy. We thought we were in a new world: Roe v. Wade was young, decades away from being rendered moot by its foes. With that and the Pill, we suddenly had bodily autonomy that our gender, up until then, could only dream of. “Women’s lib” was heralded everywhere, even as it was ridiculed. Betty Friedan, Shirley Chisholm, Gloria Steinem, and many other feminist leaders fought the good fight for the Equal Rights Act, fearlessly going up against the “establishment”— including women like Phyliss Schlafly who siphoned power by sucking up to the patriarchy. We were seizing our freedom, commanding our place at the table.
But we were only a few years out of the Madmen era, and that mindset held tenacious sway. We were also decades away from anything like the #MeToo movement. Women of my age were supposed to know how to “handle” men who made unwanted advances. Moreover, we were expected to tolerate their behavior with good humor, grace, and whenever possible, wit. We were supposed to be good sports. If we were too straightforward with our rejections, insufficiently considerate of the male ego, we were labeled uptight prudes or frigid bitches. If we manipulated men too skillfully or too successfully, we were c**k teasers. And again, bitches.
It was a game with loaded dice, in which the only rule was that women didn’t win. But we had to keep playing or face judgment, rejection, and the unspoken but ever-present possibility of physical retribution. In my twenties, I tried not to think about this too much. Nobody liked an angry woman, AKA, once again, a bitch.
Dealing with guys who got out of line pretty much came with the job of waitressing in a night club. But then, it also pretty much came with being a young woman. At least in that era, when simply walking down the street meant I was fair game for whistles and catcalls. Passing a construction site was an occasion for me hunching my shoulders and maintaining a gritty forward stare, neither of which discouraged the heckling and in fact seemed to encourage it. Once or twice I complained about this to guy friends. “Tell ’em to f— off,” advised one, oblivious to what could happen to a woman who inflamed men’s anger, especially in front of their buddies. Another male friend tried to get me to look on the bright side. “You should be flattered,” he said.
I knew better. The verbal hassling was no testament to my status as a traffic-stopper. If I’d had any doubt, there was the dreary winter night when I was trudging home from the grocery store in my snow boots, bundled in a shapeless, knee-length parka with the hood up, my arms full of laden paper bags. A car approached me from behind, its male occupants leaning out the windows to shout their hey-mamas and lurid suggestions into the freezing dark as they passed me. I marveled wearily: how could they even tell I was female?
No, the catcalling was about many things: posturing for other males; a compulsion to establish entitlement to women’s bodies; a form of entertainment in which the pleasure was sharpened by fun at the expense of someone from a lower rung on the power hierarchy. What it wasn’t about was expressing admiration.
In those days, that kind of behavior was so ubiquitous that I, and the other young women I knew, tried to ignore it. The alternative was to stomp through the city flinging epithets at the offenders like my guy friend suggested. I tried that once or twice, only to be assailed with a rapidly escalating round of obscenities that let me know I could be treading on dangerous ground. Mostly I just stared ahead and went about my day. Even so, tamped down within my center was an ever-present sense of simmering resentment.
But back to the nightclub, and that Saturday night. I’d seen the guy there before. He wasn’t a member himself, but a friend of a member, a tag-along, nebbishy-looking sort who ogled the waitresses unremarkably. Those of us who were veteran servers called Saturdays “amateur night,” a time the more sophisticated regulars avoided, sometimes allowing their less fortunate friends to use their guest passes to impress a date.
That was evidently the case with who I’ll call Amateur Night Guy. He was with a date, looking less than entranced as she sat with him at a dance-floor-adjacent table for which he had to have bribed the maitre’d. The gimmick at this club was that the disco began at 9:30, and was kicked off every night by all the boy waiters (who served food on the main floor) and girl waitresses (restricted to slinging booze in the cocktail lounge). When the music started, we all had to jettison our serving trays and head up to the dance floor. There we danced and clapped to the first song, possibly to assure the customers that the glass could indeed bear their weight without shattering. All of the waitstaff regarded this as an irritation, especially the waitresses: the dance floor couldn’t be seen from the lounge area so we knew we’d be returning to annoyed customers who wondered what had happened to their drink orders. But the management made it clear: no dance, no job.
The lounge was busy and I had a tray full of whiskey sours and gin and tonics when the disco started up. I set my tray on the bar and hurried through the lounge, then threaded my way through the tables on the main floor. The quickest route to the dance floor took me past Amateur Night Guy’s table. As I edged past him, he reached out and gave my rear end a hard squeeze.
For a nanosecond I froze, staring into his still-grinning face. And then, before I had time to think about it, my hand shot out and cracked him across the shoulders. The percussion was audible even through the Donna Summers song blaring from the disco. I stormed onto the dance floor and took my place in the waitstaff chorus line, doing the regulation side-step and clapping to the beat. But I wasn’t smiling. Flush with pent-up indignation, I mouthed expletives while glaring and pointing at Amateur Night Guy, who looked, well, stricken.
I did feel a whiff of pity for his his mortified date, who had her elbows on the table, her face shielded by her hands. But I wasn’t appeased. My backside still throbbed with outrage. The moment the dance ended, I sought out Bruno, the club’s bouncer, and no, I am not making that name up.
Back in the lounge area a few minutes later, I was interrupted in my drink deliveries again. This time it was Bruno, with Amateur Night Guy in tow, babbling a shamefaced apology. The woman who’d been his date was nowhere in sight; I assumed she had fled. Did I experience a rush of satisfaction at A.N.G.’s humiliation? Did I even, for a moment, relish his hangdog expression and the way he couldn’t meet my eyes?
Yes. Yes, I did. “Bet you’ll never do that again,” I sniped at him, and he nodded abjectly before slinking away. That was the last of Amateur Night Guy I ever saw, but I like to imagine that he stopped regarding women’s bodies as squeeze toys. Also that he figured out more effective ways to impress a date.
The dispiriting thing was that, when I related this story to my male friends at the time, they mostly rolled their eyes or called me Bruiser. Even some of my women friends thought I’d overeacted. Like, did I really have to tear into the guy like that, just for goosing me? Why make such a big deal of it? Besides, it was risky. What if he’d been waiting for me outside when I got off work at 4:00AM, trying to hail a cab and outside Bruno’s protection?
Maybe we’ve made progress since the 70s. Maybe servers no longer have to tolerate low-grade sexual assault as part of the job. Maybe young women walk through the world without fear of harassment. As I write, I’ve just come from an elegant birthday tea given in honor of my grandniece’s 18th birthday. She and her friends, all confident, accomplished, self-assured young women, were simultaneously open-hearted and fearless. I can’t imagine — I don’t want to imagine — any of them having to put up with the kind of garbage that was considered par for the course when I was their age.
I’d rather believe that the guys in their world are growing into people who would never dream of dishonoring themselves by treating other people, of whatever gender, shape, or disposition, like objects. That’s certainly the impression I get from the young men who hang out with my grandnieces.
But if anybody ever does mess with those wonderful young women, I hope they don’t think twice about hitting back. Hard.