David Segal: Ladies and Gentlemen, who pulls out the chair?
I took my wife out to dinner and a movie last month for our ninth anniversary. By “I took” I mean I reserved the table and tickets and paid for both with our joint credit card. My motive for taking charge was more expediency than chivalry: My wife had had a busy week and I’d had more time to research food and films. Also, I drove.
We went to one of those foodie establishments with a glossy concrete floor and Edison bulbs and an Instagram account and a drink menu offering “Libations.” After a few sips of my Pimm’s cocktail, I was feeling genteel and winsome. The New American menu listed “rabbit liver mouse (sic).” Was it a typo, or the latest in small mammal fusion cuisine?
We ordered shareable small plates and shareable large plates (aren’t all plates shareable if you’re with the right person?) and relaxed into our date night. A few feet away, the hostess led a 30-something couple to their table. The man wore tailored khakis and a checkered button-down shirt; his date wore a sleeveless summer dress with splotches of primary colors.
As they reached the table, he crossed in front of her and pulled out her chair. She smoothed the fabric of her dress underneath her as she sat so the skirt wouldn’t catch or bunch. It’s a move women do, the ladylike complement to a man’s gentlemanly gesture.
When the hostess had led us to our table, I had not pulled out the chair for my wife, who was wearing pants. When we had left home for the restaurant, I had not opened the car door for her. She had managed those tasks on her own.
My wife makes more money than I do; I cook more than she does. That’s not a complaint or a brag. It’s what works for us.
Pulling out a chair is symbolic, but of what? Care and respect? Why is it gendered? Picture the couple being led to their table, but this time the woman pulls out the chair for the man. How odd.
Now, I’m imagining an egalitarian couple caught in an infinite seating loop as one pulls out the chair for the other who then immediately gets up to pull the chair out for the first, and on and on until the kitchen runs out of rabbit liver mouse. It would play at double speed like a “Benny Hill Show” end credit chase, with the same frenetic slapstick saxophone soundtrack.
It was a romantic dinner. My wife and I reflected on nine years married, a total of 12 years together, six years as parents, two children, two jobs and two hometowns. The company was more memorable than the food, which is better than the alternative.
I had chosen the restaurant because of solid (if inflated) reviews and proximity to a movie theater screening “RBG,” the new release about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I had joked earlier that a documentary about the octogenarian jurist wasn’t the most romantic choice for a date movie.
I was wrong! The film told the love story of Ruth Bader and Marty Ginsburg. As an undergraduate at Cornell, Ruth hadn’t had a second date until she met Marty. Perhaps the other men (boys?) were intimidated by her intellect. Marty loved her brain. They were married 56 years, until Marty’s death in 2010.
Throughout Ruth’s illustrious career, Marty cheered and enabled his wife’s successes. A respected tax lawyer, he structured his work life so he could pick up the slack for Ruth’s long hours. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter nominated Ruth to the federal bench. Marty supported moving the family from New York to Washington D.C. despite the job change it demanded of him.
In the film, clips of Marty’s self-deprecating humor show a man tickled by his wife’s brilliance and fame, a man whose wife would always outshine him. His eyes twinkle as he grins with pride.
I wonder who planned Marty and Ruth’s date nights. I wonder whether Marty pulled out Ruth’s chair when they went to dinner. I trust that Ruth pulls out her own chair when she sits on the Supreme Court.
David Segal lives in Houston. Connect with him at http://www.rabbidavidsegal.com. His column (usually) runs the first Sunday of the month.
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