Here's to the ladies who lunch

When I was a little girl, there were certain borderline comedians who made their living making fun of an institution called the "ladies' lunch." The ridicule was two-pronged. First of all, the very idea of women idling away an afternoon -- talking! -- was somehow appalling to them. What could possibly take up so much time in conversation? Trivia, no doubt. Hemstitching and hamburger patties. Worst of all, when it came time to pay the bill, these ladies of the leisure class would split the check! How ignoble! How unmanlike! Everyone knows that at any businessman's lunch you'll find at least one gentleman lunging for the check. (In fact the pack of them usually do their best imitation of a shark frenzy.) That's just the way men are. Women? Let's face it: they're petty. Besides, down deep women don't even really like other women, right?

Wrong.

At worst, the above is a distortion of the truth. At least it's not funny. Even as a kid I didn't laugh. But as an adult I've done some thinking about this subject. It's not enough (it's never enough) to let sleeping jokes lie, especially when the joke is a lie and the joke is on us. And so, a closer look at the ladies who lunch, rhetorically subtitled: How Much Can You Learn Eating Alone?

Historically (herstorically?) a shared meal has always led to a shared experience. Just as nuclear families bond themselves at the dinner table, extended families, of either or both genders, thrive on the lunch hour. Women getting together has always served a common purpose, whether it was my mom, in gloves and linen suit having brunch with some of the girls, or me with jeans and ink-stained fingers having a salad with some of the women. The words and the costumes may change, but the melody lingers on. The song we sing is that of a support system we've always known about, but was, until recently, never spoken of.

My mother and her friends at my age were all doing the same two things -- taking care of a home and raising children. For them these irregular get-togethers were a respite from anumal crackers and oven cleaners and all the other dull details of two otherwise noble pursuits.

My friends and I also do two things at the same time. We take care of our own homes, and we raise our careers. My friends are both married and unmarried. All of them work full time. Of my married friends, only one has children. She's the one who came up with the idea of regularly scheduled lunches, to carry on our mothers' tradition. Let's face it, with a home, a career, a husband, and two kids, she needs more visible means of support than the rest of us do.

The relationship between women and men has been described in terms of chemistry. Perhaps then the relationship of women and their women friends can be seen in terms of physics. Chemistry is the science of reaction. Physics is the science of interaction. The laboratory is the lunch table. Sometimes the topics of discussion at this table are less important than the ways they are discussed. At this laboratory/table everyone present has an opinion, and every opinion is valid. The purpose of this essay is not to say that men don't also need to feel their opinions are valid. However, it could be said that until very recently (about seven minutes ago) men had more opportunities for validation than women. As in the commercial ads for a stock brokerage firm, when a man speaks, everyone listens. When a woman speaks, in mixed company, men are uneasy, women are threatened, and children want their juice now please. But alone, without the weight of the world on them, women can be what people (both sorts) inherently are: kind. They can listen. And they can learn.

But we still haven't dealt with the allegedly hairsplitting notion of splitting the check. It's really quite simple. When my mother and her friends ate out, it wasn't their money to be generous with. It was their husbands'. The issue of "who pays" has given more women more guilt than Florida has given us oranges. It's hard enough to spend what they didn't earn. It's nigh unto impossible to splurge it. Certainly housewives and mothers have more than earned their keep, but what they've earned they still can't keep in their wallets. Even in the '80s, pride of accomplishment won't pay the bills, much less leave a tip. And since the point of the ladies' lunch is often free advice , not a free meal, splitting the check translates as paying your dues.

Now with me and my friends, it's a different story. We support ourselves, as writers, actresses, musicians, artists. In other words, at this point we can't afford to pay for anyone but ourselves. That's understood. Money is no object. Also, it isn't spent. It's saved for such extravagances as rent and the phone bill.

And leave us never forget that those aforementioned jaunty gentilhommesm usually had expense accounts that amply covered their lunches. In every sense, they could afford the grand gesture of picking up the check. And even without expense accounts, remember, women still earn only 58 cents to a man's dollar. And that'll buy a lot of Caesar salad.

So if there's still anyone out there who finds the thought of a ladies' lunch either amusing or vapid, let me remind him that the topics of conversation may vary from the frivolous to the frieghted, from soap operas to SALT talks to Santorini in the spring, but the subject is always the same. The subject is support. Men are just now figuring out what women have known for a long time -- that there's not only safety in numbers, there's sanity. (We didn't mean to keep it a secret; nobody asked us.) When women take care of their own first, it's easier to take on the world next.

For my mother, taking on the world after a luncheon usually meant picking me up from school. Now, thanks to a few leavening lunches, and the fact that I'm no longer in grade school, it means tending to her own business, something she now says she would have incorporated into days as a private chauffeur. For me, taking on the world means picking up at whatever paragraph I left off before lunch so that someday I will have the discipline to pick up a similar paragraph after pickup of the baby's toys. And so that someday soon I can pick up the check for my mother and for her friends, too. After all, who wants to be petty?

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