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The Historic NYC Lunch Where Women Demanded the Right to Eat Alongside Men

Picture of Elizabeth Nicholas
Updated: 18 April 2018
Once upon a time in the United States, women had to be accompanied by men in order to eat in dining establishments.

This anachronistic rule was being implemented in New York City as late as 1868 when a group of women decided that they had had enough of being expected to walk around with chaperones.

The women were part of a women’s social and professional organization and club called the Sorosis Club, which was the first women’s professional organization in the United States. The Club was founded in 1868, and one of its founding members was Fanny Fern, a columnist who was angry that she had been excluded from the New York Press Club when it hosted Charles Dickens because she was a woman.

A statue of Charles Dickens. A woman’s exclusion from an event with Dickens sparked a revolution in the U.S. dining scene.
A statue of Charles Dickens. A woman’s exclusion from an event with Dickens sparked a revolution in the U.S. dining scene. | © Peter Trimming / Flickr

The goal of the Sorosis Club was to bring accomplished women from the arts, literature, and science together to further the horizons and possibilities of women not only in the club but everywhere.

And in 1868, the women decided they were done being accompanied by men to lunch. To make the biggest statement they could, they targeted the city’s undisputed epicenter of fine dining and power dining: Delmonico’s.

Delmonico’s was chosen for a symbolic reason as well—it was the site of the event with Dickens from which Fern had been excluded. So, the women made a then-scandalous decision and decided to host their annual meeting in a private room at the restaurant.

Delmonico’s decided not to refuse. The women all showed up and made a scene of entering the restaurant together, a large group of women, unaccompanied by men.

They caused quite a stir. And the publicity only helped burnish Delmonico’s reputation. In addition to its status as the toniest restaurant in Manhattan, the place to see and be seen, the restaurant also became known as fashionably progressive.

The women did not forget their reception and chose to make Delmonico’s the site of their annual meeting every year. Other restaurants followed suit, and New York City restaurants and those around the country gradually began to play host to women on their own.

Delmonico’s, in downtown Manhattan, still exists. This spring, the restaurant is hosting a celebratory 150th-anniversary lunch to commemorate the historic meeting.

The D.C. women’s march, one of the most well-known women’s rights organizations today
The D.C. women’s march, one of the most well-known women’s rights organizations today | © Liz Lemon / Flickr

Ladies who lunch, indeed.