NEWS for North Dakotans
Agriculture Communication, North Dakota State University
7 Morrill Hall, Fargo, ND 58105-5665
January 22, 1998
Tom Isern, Professor of History
North Dakota State University
©1997 Plains Folk
All right, now I've been sensitized.
We live in a world where you have to be careful what you say, what kind of jokes you tell, what you hang on the wall, because someone is going to be offended. After a while you get jaded and say, I'm tired of tip-toeing around, to heck with this sensitivity stuff.
So I was listening to some academic papers the other day, and, as will happen at such times, my mind wandered, except that this time it wandered along lines inspired by the papers. The authors were talking about saloon-smashing by women at the turn of the century. Everyone knows about Carrie Nation in Kansas, I suppose, but in fact there were smashing incidents from North Dakota all the way down the plains.
The prohibitionist women are easy to caricature, of course. They were radicals, they were vociferous, they were single-minded, it seemed, in their crusade against the saloon. Now I see, though, that the issue was not just liquor. It was that place, the saloon.
The saloon was a male domain. Much of its appeal was that respectable women did not go there. Its decor was designed not only to fortify masculine values but also to keep out unwanted women. That was the point of those pictures of scantily clad ladies hung above the bar.
Nowadays saloons are more integrated, but some things haven't changed that much. Sports bars and many others are decked with beer posters of gals barely clad in bikinis or less.
Now, my feminist friends get worked up about this, and until recently I was inclined to think it was only an expression of the prudish aspect of the modern confrontation of the sexes. To me it was just part of the politically correct noise of our times.
Then I went into a cafe in a little town on the plains, and that was when I felt the shoe pinching the other foot. I was uncomfortable in the place, and I tried to figure out why. Then it hit me: it was the decor.
You've seen this, and you know the scenario I'm talking about. A town has a cafe where everyone hangs out, but it goes into decline, gets run-down, needs new management. So a couple of women needing work decide to buy it and bring it "Under New Management."
They are not content merely to sweep out the place and to swab the range of the grease of past generations. No, they re-do the whole interiorwith country crafts.
Is it just me, or is this driving you nuts, too? All this paisley print wallpaper, little stuffed dollies perched on shelves, quilted and embroidered stuff everywhere, little bitty chairs you can't sit on, you have to perch like a bird. And oh yes, those little shadow boxes filled with trinkets.
Don't kid yourself, this is not just a matter of taste. We are being admonished. We are being told, wipe your feet before you come in here, watch your language, don't wolf your food. Women are in charge here.
Then the owners wonder why the roughnecks and beet lifters no longer drop by for lunch.
We are experiencing what scholars these days are calling "gendered space."
You publicans of the plains, and you keepers of cafes, listen to me. Yours may be the only place of refreshment in your community. If you gender it, not only business, but also community, may be lost.
Maybe equal time is the answer. For every deer rack on the wall, put a doily on the table.
Source: Tom Isern (701) 231-8339
Editor: Barry Brissman (701) 231-7866