I’ve asserted several times in this series that bars were, traditionally, male spaces. It wasn’t until checking Christine Sismondo’s phenomenal history America Walks Into a Bar out from my local library that I found out this was not just an informal taboo: in the decades after Prohibition, many bars explicitly banned women, or banned them from visiting during certain hours.
There were a few reasons for this, depending on the region and the bar: first, during World War II, as was the case in many other fields, women went into traditionally male occupations, including bartending (in some cases forming barmaids’ unions). When men came back from the war, they formed their own, all-male unions to muscle female bartenders out. But bars did employ women during the postwar era – just not to pour drinks. Instead, “B-girls” employed by the bar would show up, pretending to be nurses or secretaries on their way home from work, and charm the male clientele into buying them drink after drink. After several drinks, the woman in question – usually called a “B-girl” – would disappear, leaving her companion with an artificially inflated bar tab: he’d be charged for cocktails even as the in-the-know bartenders had been pouring one glass of juice, soda pop or iced tea after another.
The ensuing moral panic (which focused on protecting the male victims, and didn’t concern itself one way or another with the women involved in the work) had the result that many bars banned women from visiting, or just from visiting during certain hours. And, of course, there were the bars that had never opened their doors to women in the first place, or just refused to serve unaccompanied women.
The practice went unquestioned until December 1967, when a young journalism student named Joan Kennedy and her mother, parched from Christmas shopping, were booted from the Rainbow Lounge of the Hotel Syracuse and contacted the local chapter of the National Organization for Women, which staged sit-ins at the Hotel Syracuse and a second all-male Syracuse establishment called McCarthy’s – and later stormed men’s-only bars across the United States, later suing a New York City bar called McSorley’s (which is still open, though no longer boasting “good ale, raw onions, and no women”). The lawsuit never went to court, being obviated by a 1969 New York City ordinance prohibiting sex discrimination in public spaces. Local governments around the country followed suit, opening up their doors to women, however reluctantly, and the change was noted even by Wonder Woman illustrator H.G. Peter, in the strip I’ve linked here.
There are earlier stories of women demanding to be served in bars – and, unlike their 1960s counterparts, they sometimes succeeded without having to file suit or pass new laws, like when women stormed the all-male Roosevelt New Orleans Hotel and were promptly served by the dumbfounded staff. Still, of all the seats and sites of gender discrimination women faced in the early 1960s, why did early feminists storm the bar, of all places? The question came up more than once. Sismondo writes:
Many did not want NOW, as a new organization, to appear frivolous; but Kennedy’s case caught [NOW chapter president] DeCrow’s imagination as ‘a symbol of being a free person.’ It was segregation, argued DeCRow, who had experience working against Jim Crow laws and who later went on to fight for women’s rights to gain admission to private clubs and golf courses. It was also a barrier to her goal ‘to get women out into the marketplace’ and prove that they weren’t ‘sweet flowers who couldn’t leave the home.’ She pointed out the absurdity that a woman could pick up a guy in the street and go to the hotel bar, but would be considered indecent if she went in with her mother. Further, DeCrow argued, in these men’s only spaces, a lot more than recreation was happening. ‘Most business decisions don’t happen because somebody calls a meeting at ten in the morning, at which all issues are to be decided,’ says DeCrow. ‘They happen informally over drinks after work.”
Previously: Competitive drinking, in college and after