SANTA FE, N.M. — The earliest days of the women’s movement were measured out in cups of coffee and ample slices of pie served with flair by the fresh-faced and flawless young ladies who ventured West in the days when ladies rarely ventured far from home and convention.
To serve hungry sojourners in the early days of railroad travel across the American frontier, thousands of these bright young women heeded the call to go West to seek their fortunes, serve food and forsake the rigid roles of their gender by becoming Harvey Girls.
“Women back then had very few options for employment. Waitresses were at the bottom of the social scale, barely a notch above a prostitute,” said Carolyn Meyer, Albuquerque author of about 60 historic novels for young adults. “Yet here were these courageous young girls taking off to heaven knows what in what was still the Wild West.”
The job of a waitress might not seem like a feminist achievement, but in the 1880s and for nearly seven decades to come, it was monumental. The Harvey Girls brought class to the once nefarious occupation, an iconic style to the Harvey House transcontinental railway restaurants and hotels in which they served and an adventure that their corseted and often impoverished lives had not before afforded.
They came a long way, baby, in more ways than one.