Boas: changes in cultural context over time reflected in gender roles in a restaurant setting

I have worked in restaurants since I was sixteen. Three restaurants to be exact and sadly I have to admit that two of them were an Applebee’s. In 2008 I left the corporate chain in Kenosha to earn a better living in a family owned supper club that has stood the test of time. The HobNob opened in 1954 at a time when women were waitresses and hostesses and every other position was held by a man: bartender and chef to name just two. Today, I am one of three bartenders that work there; two out of the three of us are women. Just under decade ago, these positions were extremely gendered and rigid whereas today, they are not only diverse but are addressed with a completely different vocabulary: ie, waitress/waiter = server. Today, in conjunction with the addition of women bartenders, there have been women chefs and male servers and hosts, so, clearly times have changed. Boas would argue that these changes in the cultural context of the restaurant and society in turn change the elements of the restaurant’s culture and their meanings.

In the 50’s, a woman’s role in society was quite clear: an ideal woman cooked, cleaned, looked after the children, and concerned herself solely with the happiness of her husband. This image is rather exaggerated but illustrates the frustrations of the women of those generations and the mentality of men of the time. Bill Higgins was the first owner of the HobNob and would see to it that a waitress stayed well into the evening to serve him dinner in the empty restaurant – because he could. Today, that would be considered totally inappropriate and a form of coercion of an employee by her boss. Over the past sixty years there has been incredible progress in equality of gender and race which can be reflected in the cultural context of this supper club as well as any other place of employment due to the fact that the culture surrounding the workplace is magnified in such a concentrated space.

When the HobNob first opened, women were looked down on and considered a nuisance to most men whether or not they were aware of their reliance upon them. When taking an order, I can imagine a waitress of the 50’s having to just accept the condescending tone of the male patron. In contrast, by today’s standards, to be a male or female server and to be disparaged by a patron of either gender is not only impolite of the patron but also plainly disrespectful. Taking a look at the inner workings of the restaurant, women servers of decades past might have been taken for granted, considering their limited roles and ability to be of value. Today, there may be only two male servers at the restaurant, but they are not considered the “strongest” or the “best”. They are equally as important but the female servers, especially the seasoned ones that have been there for years, are more heavily relied upon to solve problems or answer dire questions. The dynamics of the restaurant have certainly changed over the years in relation to the changes in the culture of the local society. To understand where we are as employees at the HobNob, as Boas would point out, we have to look closely at the history of not only the establishment itself but also of the local society.

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Historical Imagination

While reading Sears and Cairns, I was particularly struck by the concept of historical imagination in chapter six. Historical imagination is described as essential to understanding our past as well as ourselves in the present while sociological imagination “allows us to understand not only the forces that shape our world, but also the potential for our own activity to change it” (Sears 144-146). To apply this to my own life, I can take a look at why I’m here at Parkside. I’m only at college because my beautiful, older sister attended Columbia of Chicago and graduated with honors. I was in no way motivated to go anywhere for a secondary education. It has taken me five years just to begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel. When I was younger, as I do today, I aimed to be just like her. I idolized her and still admire her very much. My admiration for my sister, even though it was not very evident years ago as we bickered and fought like sisters will do, made me want to further my education and become a more successful version of myself. I stopped going to Parkside for three years and in that time I saw her graduate and helped her party when she was done. I then realized the great amount of time I had wasted by not finishing what I had started. My parents had attended some university but never finished, as far as I know, and during my time in high school they crammed the idea of attending college so far down my throat I gagged. My sister was and is the only source of inspiration to have continued my education. Learning from her personal history, seeing her succeed, and seeing my own past and how it was stunting my intellectual growth led me to where I am today.

I can use the historical imagination to also understand who I am in regard to my relationship with my grandfather. The man drove a tank on Normandy Beach on D-Day in the Second World War, so I am convinced he is a war hero. This translated into his life as an incredible work ethic and the inability to sit still while knowing there was much to be done, not only around the house but in his community. As a kid I spent time with him constantly working on household projects or his time spent doing odd jobs for neighbors in need. Because he was trained by the military he became disciplined; because he was a disciplined man he became a methodical, well-organized husband/father/citizen; due to my time spent with him, I learned to do things right the first time and to the best of my ability. In a roundabout way, I owe my sense of duty and hard work to the instigators of WWII because my 18 year old ancestor was drafted and turned into one of the greatest men I’ve ever known.

Taking apart my everyday existence and looking deep into my past, as well as my family’s, has helped me understand who I am today and how/why I’ve gotten to where I am. It is interesting to know that the incredible events of the past that are so far removed from my own experiences and reality have shaped not only the world I live in but my own personality and how I view the world.