Mr. Ambassador and "wife of" differ on the delights of the predinner cocktail hour. He rather likes to pirouette from Congressman Otterback to the world's most expensive lobbyist, Joe Promisall, having a word about the Summit here and the latest rumors about White House defections there. Men do this thing more gracefully than women, Beverly, and I'm trying to figure out why. In fact I've noticed a phenomenon while standing and waiting for the dinner gong. The men flit around like regular butterflies, but the women, for the most part, like to remain together, in several motionless clumps. Personally, I find it difficult to chat up a man while standing, so last night I thankfully joined one of the motionless female clumps and asked why we women tend to band together in this way.
"Most women are shorter than men," said Nelda Otterbach. "The moment you have to look up, you're at a psychological disadvantage, not to mention the physical strain on the neck. And you never get to hear good gossip."
"You mean that men in Washington won't tell women anything interesting?" I asked. "They will," Nelda answered, "if you're sitting down. But gossip in Washington has to be mumbled so no one else can hear. If you are at one of those noisy Washington parties, and if there's a six-inch space between a man and a woman, you have to shout, and nobody shouts good gossip."
"If a woman's tall, perhaps she can mumble along with the men?" I ventured. "Men and men mumble," Nelda said. "Men and women whisper. Whispering between men and women not married to each other creates resentment. Unless she's very old or very powerful."
Actually, it's much more fun standing with the women because they have many interesting and indiscreet things to say and cannot be overheard by their hus bands. The truth is, Beverly, unlike your life in the slow lane, it's hard for a "wife of" in this transient and frenetic town to find time to make a female pal. She has a job, children, helps run campaigns, embassies or charities. Then a day comes when she realizes that there's no one to call on those rare occasions when she has a free half-hour. She is the modern equivalent of the lonely farm wife who only had a chance to see other women at barn raisings twice a year.
Beverly, these predinner cocktail hours are Washington's barn raisings. It's the only time women get to have a heart-to-heart before sitting down to dinner with strange men on both sides.
This separating of the women from the men is not imposed on us by custom or anybody. I wondered what others had to say about the new voluntary style of the separation of the sexes.
Naturally I asked Popsie Tribble first.
"I never stand with the women in clumps," Popsie said. "I can work a room as efficiently as any man if I choose to. And I'm only 5 feet 3. Of course, I come from a class that used to separate the sexes after dinner. The ladies left the men to their port, and we would go upstairs, sit on the hostess' bed, drink coffee and cordials. I suppose that's when the men had their serious conversations. We talked about bridge, not children, and waited until we were summoned down by the host. I admit I was bored, but that's the way my parents behaved. This rarely happens in Washington any more. But don't you believe that the feminists had anything to do with the change. The reason women don't leave the men alone after dinner is because it lengthens the evening by half an hour. Men are too exhausted to impose it."
I told wife of Thistle Jr. from State what Popsie said and asked for her views.
Rita Thistle sniffed. "My father owned a hardware store in Buffalo, and my mother was a housewife with five children. Until Melvin and I got to Washington we followed my parents' custom. Of course there was no formal separation of the sexes after dinner. Who drinks port in Buffalo? Before dinner the women would sit down on one side of the room and talk about the kids. The men would stand up on the other side and talk about the stock market and sports. At dinner my mother always sat beside my father and usually the husband of her best friend. She couldn't be bothered making conversation with someone she saw only a couple of times a year. After dinner the men would leave the table, sit on big chairs and snooze, and some of the women would get up to help the hostess with the dishes. Those who couldn't find the extra dish towel would sit around the table and drink coffee, occasionally interrupt the dishwashers with, "Louise, do you want me to take over now?"
Then Beverly, there was the kind of sex separation that took place in my Auntie Zora's house in Gravelbourg, Saskatchewan, when I grew up. Auntie Zora didn't sit down with the men before dinner, during dinner or after dinner. Auntie Zora ruled Gerald with an iron thumb, but she observed local customs. The men went down to the recreation room and the women stayed upstairs to heat the soup. When soup was ready the women usually sat at the table two and three in a row. (Zora didn't care about placement.) She'd return to the kitchen to fix up the plates for the main course. The women rose during the middle of their soup to help. Then Zora would hand around the plates like a waitress in the Lone Star Cafe, grab a chair and eat her food off a saucer well away from the table, close to the kitchen door. She had to get up to make tea and coffee before dessert. Who drank wine in Gravelbourg in 1947?
Zora always said the best gossip took place in the kitchen with the women. Nobody knew what the men talked about. Anyway Beverly, maybe the women in the kitchens of Gravelbourg, and the "wives of" who stand in large motionless clumps before Washington dinners do have something in common after all.
Your best friend,