Food & Drink

A Short History of Women Working Behind the Bar

Picture a hipster bartender in your mind. Can you see him? Is he a neck tattoo guy, or did he stop with the forearms? Does he have suspenders, a jaunty hat or facial hair? Does he look like a representative member of the drink-mixing establishment?

Well, he’s not. Mainly because it’s far more likely that he’s a she.

Though conventional wisdom and public perception have yet to catch up to the idea of women working behind the bar, 60 percent of today’s bartenders are women. Yet despite these numbers, many female bartenders still struggle for basic recognition and respect. “It’s an unconscious thing,” says Sarah Justice, an award-winning bartender and general manager of The Franklin Bar and The Upstairs Bar in Philadelphia, who often is mistaken for being a server. “When they see you’re a woman, people assume you can’t be in a position of power.”

Marissa Orlowski, professor at Rosen College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida, says male students frequently make gender assumptions; for example, designing plans for a whiskey bar and saying the target audience is only middle aged men. “I push back and say, ‘Really justify that to me one more time. Why is it you think that?’” Orlowski says. “These students are barely 21 years old so these stereotypes must come from somewhere.”

It’s not hard to find the origins of these attitudes, if you look back just a few generations. A century ago, there were just 7,000 American women working as doctors. But at the same time there were only 147 American women working as bartenders. That’s 0.3 percent of the 55,807 bartenders working in America at the time. Back then it was 50 times more common to see a woman wielding a stethoscope than a shaker.

Throughout history, women have been both worshiped and reviled when it comes to booze. In ancient Sumeria, goddesses protected beer and brewing, and women were believed to be the inventors of beer, while ancient Romans executed women if they were found near wine. During the Middle Ages, ale wives who brewed beer were sometimes accused of witchcraft by their competitors; and that practice was exported to the New World, where some of the most famous Salem “witches” were successful tavern keepers.

Tavern-keeping, even with restrictions in Puritan times, remained a socially acceptable profession for women, but in the mid-19th century, things changed. What had been sanctioned became absolutely forbidden and even outlawed.

This social—and legal—development arose partly because many taverns were being replaced with saloons, with their spittoons covering the counters and piss troughs lining the floors. Many states forbade women from entering these decrepit booze holes, even to chase down a wayward husband. That said, some states allowed women to serve food or service customers, and places like Wisconsin let women enter a saloon—but only through the side door, with privacy screens to shield male customers from their presence.

Places that actually hired women as barmaids suffered legal consequences. In 1892, The New York Times reported a crackdown on six tavern owners who “employed women in dramshops.” Missouri ruled it a felony for women to work in dramshops, bars and concert halls, while Montana women were threatened with arrest and forfeiture. Michigan even didn’t allow women entrance to any place that sold alcohol.

Along came Prohibition, and saloons made way for speakeasies, in which fun-loving flappers could be found drinking in public with men. Because of this new breed of customer, bars created separate bathrooms, and thus, the powder room came to be.

Women also owned speakeasies, smuggled booze and bartended. From 1900 to 1940, women grew to be 2 percent of the bartending workforce, and then World War II opened the bar doors wide open. By 1945, 1,000 women were employed as barmaids in New York alone.

But when Bubba the bartender returned from the war, he wanted his job back. Not only that, he didn’t want to share workspace with women, and he was willing to fight dirty. While the Hotel and Restaurant Employees and Bartenders International (HREBI) union had pretty much always held that “bartenders’ work (is) a cloister for the male gender” and had issued restrictions about women serving alcohol as early as 1933, the union amped up its discrimination with a vengeance. “Tending bar is a man’s job,” wrote Hugo Ernst, an acting HREBI president, in a 1946 report in the union’s magazine on an anti-women resolution that the union’s executive board approved. Women couldn’t be bartenders, the union held, because women were not “emotionally or temperamentally” suited for the job. The union also held that bartending—and liquor itself—could “corrupt” women.

Bartending was just one profession where men discriminated against women in the name of “protecting” them, says Alison Parker, author and history professor at College at Brockport, State University of New York. Some states passed laws saying that women couldn’t work at night, which meant no female journalists, printers or street car conductors. “What they were trying to do was to get women out of those jobs and into more gender stereotypical jobs,” Parker says.

Not only did unions deny women membership and picket taverns that employed barmaids, but they also lobbied state and local officials to pass laws about women tending bar.

Michigan was one such state, and one such union shop was Detroit’s Local 562, which lobbied and convinced Michigan legislators to amend its Liquor Control Act in 1945 to prohibit women from tending bar unless they were the bar owner’s wives or daughters. After Valentine Goesaert’s husband died, she and her daughter Margaret wanted to continue to run the family bar in Dearborn, Michigan, as they always had. They, with 24 other women, hired feminist lawyer Anne R. Davidow to take the state liquor commission to court. Davidow rightly pointed out that the state law robbed female bar owners of their livelihood because, even though they had the right to obtain proper licensing for their bars, they still had to hire male bartenders to work while they stood by idle.

Goesaert v. Cleary made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1948. Unfortunately, the court sided with the union in a 6-3 ruling. Having a man on the premises protected women, the court ruled. “Michigan, could, beyond question, forbid all women from working behind a bar,” wrote Justice Felix Frankfurter. “Since the line they [the legislators] have drawn is not without basis in reason, we cannot give ear to the suggestion that the real impulse behind this legislation was an unchivalrous desire of male bartenders to try to monopolize the calling.”

Even with this ruling, Michigan barmaids did not give up. Some women like Elizabeth Hibye flouted the law outright. When Hibye’s husband Tony died in 1937, she recognized pretty quickly that the family ice cream parlor in Port Huron wouldn’t be enough to support her and her daughter Helen David, so she decided to convert it into the Brass Rail Bar. Her daughter was aghast, saying, “Proper ladies do not run saloons.” Hibye quipped back, “A lady is a lady no matter where you put her, but she’s got to have a buck in her pocket.”

David came around, even mentoring so many generations of bartenders that the Tales of the Cocktail lifetime achievement award is named in her honor. Her younger cousin Tony Abou-Ganim believes that the good people of Port Huron ignored the 1945 state law because both Hibye and David were local philanthropists. “I think that’s why, maybe, people stepped up and supported Helen and her mother in the bar,” says Abou-Ganim, noted Las Vegas consultant and author of The Modern Mixologist: Contemporary Classic Cocktails.

Hibye and David weren’t the only plucky Michigan barmaids. Pressure from the Michigan Barmaids Association eventually caused state legislators in 1955 to repeal the Michigan law that had led to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling. But the damage, nationally, was already done.

Before the Goesaert v. Cleary decision, only 17 states had laws against women bartenders; by 1960, the number would grow to 26. In 1951, Chicago’s city council passed what would become known as “the barmaids’ ordinance,” outlawing women from bartending. The lone voice of dissention came from African American women who were members of Local 444—the Waitresses, Bartenders, and Cooks’ Union—as they refused to pay dues until the legal situation was resolved.

The union’s head honchos basically ignored them—until 1961, when the law finally began being enforced under “Boss” Mayor Richard J. Daley, and 400 women lost their jobs.

When legislation caused women to lose their bartending jobs, some were able to return to previous positions as cocktail waitresses—waitressing unions didn’t fight for bartending rights, as they were too busy working to maintain women’s rights to simply waitress in bars.

In 1954, in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, Marcy Skowronski was working at Helen’s Maplewood Tavern on Okauchee Lake. As the owner, Helen was allowed to bartend, but Skowronski was only legally allowed to waitress. “Helen liked to have a good time so she left me in charge,” Skowronski says. This arrangement worked until Skowronski became so popular that one of the tavern’s competitors blew the whistle on her so she lost her job. Skowronski ended up back in Milwaukee, tending bar at her father-in-law’s bar, and at 91-years, she still tends at the Holler House.

In the 1960s, the power of unions waned, and more bars with attached restaurants began to hire women, as it was more socially acceptable for women to tend bar in a place that primarily served food.

Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, along with the 1964 Equal Pay Act, ushered in bigger changes, as they gave women the legal precedent to challenge discriminatory laws.

In some places, like Wisconsin, the laws changed in one city at a time, with mayors and aldermen in different municipalities altering local ordinances individually. In other places, like California, the battles were fought in court.

In the late 1960s, the owner of The Classic Cat strip club in Los Angeles decided that it might be profitable for his strippers to take a turn shaking something else after shedding their clothes on stage.

The idea of topless bartending earned the ire of Edward J. Kirby, the director of California’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Agency, who was tasked with cleaning up establishments that engaged in lewd activities.

The case made its way through the California court system, winding up before the state Supreme Court in May 1971 as The Sail’er Inn, Inc. v. Kirby. The Sail’er Inn was The Classic Cat’s corporation name, and it represented not just the Classic Cat but other bars that had skirted the law in hiring female bartenders.

This landmark case wouldn’t have happened were it not for the intervention of feminist clerk Wendy Webster Williams. Williams had just started working for Justice Raymond J. Peters when she came across another judge’s memo urging the court to simply deny the case and uphold the law.

While the lurid details distracted the memo’s author, Williams recognized the case for what it was: blatant job discrimination. Peters instructed her to write a memo, and she did, arguing that any employment discrimination against women deserved strict scrutiny from the court. Her memo convinced the justices to take up the case.

This very smart lawyer not only recognized a case of sexism when she saw it, she also noticed that when the actual Sail’er Inn brief was filed, it didn’t present as strong a case as it could. So Williams got a female law professor and two female law students to write an amicus brief that was so good the strip club’s attorneys used it to help win their cause.

When the case was finally heard, California Attorneys General Thomas C. Lynch and Evelle J. Younger argued “a male bartender or owner must be present…to preserve order and protect patrons.” The court vehemently disagreed, saying, “This argument ignores modern day reality. Today most bars, unlike the saloons of the Old West, are relatively quiet, orderly and respectable places patronized by both men and women. Even if they were not, many bars employ bouncers whose sole job is to keep order.”

The state also argued that the statute was in place simply to protect women from being injured by inebriated customers, and that women didn’t have the strength to do the job. The court knocked that one down easily, noting, “It is difficult to believe that women working behind the bar would be more subject to such dangers than the cocktail waitresses who are now permitted to work among the customers.”

The state also presented a moral argument. The court struck that one down saying, “The first rationale rests upon the peculiar and wholly unacceptable generalization that women in bars, unrestrained by husbands or the risk of losing a liquor license, will commit improper acts…it is whole arbitrary and without support in logic or experience. There is no reason to believe that women bartenders would have any less incentive than male bartenders to obey the laws.”

In closing, the court hit a homerun saying, “Women as a class are as capable as men of mixing drinks and are permitted to do so in many states. The technical capabilities of women are not, however, at issue here. … Such perils cannot serve as the basis for a blanket statewide statutory prohibition against the employment of women bartenders.”

In the midst of striking down all of the baseless reasons against women bartenders, the court even noted Goesaert: “Although Goesaert has not been overruled, its holding has been the subject of academic criticism…and its sweeping statement that the states are not constitutionally precluded from ‘drawing a sharp line between the sexes’ has come under increasing limitation.”

The justice writing the court’s opinion was, of course, none other than Peters, with his clerk Williams assisting.

Once states knocked down discriminatory laws and local ordinances, women began bartending in greater numbers. In 1970, only 21.2 percent of all bartenders were female. By 1980, the numbers had more than doubled to 44 percent, and by 1990, women made up 52 percent. Today it’s 60 percent and climbing.

In the 1970s, the struggles to pass the Equal Rights Amendment galvanized many, even though it never became law. Many more people were becoming aware of the issues around hiring and promoting women. “I don’t think that Gloria Steinem was out there focusing on the plight of the female bartender, but those things trickle down,” Orlowski says.

“By 1978, the revolution of women behind the bar had already started,” says Joy Perrine, author of The Kentucky Bourbon Cocktail Book who has been bartending for 50 years, the last 30 or so in Louisville, Kentucky, at Equus Restaurant and Jack’s Bar.

But as the craft cocktail movement got underway, discrimination took a more traditional, underground turn. Jules Aron, cocktail consultant, bartender and author of Zen and Tonic, says ever since she started bartending nearly 20 years ago, she’s seen gender preferences. “There have been times when I was often hired because I was a woman, but there are also times when I haven’t been hired because I wasn’t a man,” says Aron. “Once you get into the craft cocktail side of things, there’s a snobbery to it, and they often hire more men.”

Lynn House, Heaven Hill Brands’ national brand educator, says that when she was working at the Drawing Room in Chicago with her best friend, Debbi Peek, customers sometimes didn’t want them to make their cocktails. “We would say ‘He’s off tonight, but if you want a drink, one of us is making it,” House says. “There were lots of female bartenders across the city, but not many were working as craft bartenders.”

Julie Reiner, who is widely regarded as one of the best bartenders in the world, experienced major discrimination when she moved from San Francisco to New York in 1997. “I would walk in to apply for a job, and they’d say, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to cocktail waitress?’” she recalls. “It was all men behind the bar. I’d say, ‘I can bartend circles around these guys. Just put me back there for a night.’ It was very difficult to get hired.” Reiner was finally hired to manage C3, eventually opening Flatiron Lounge, Pegu Club, Clover Club and Leyenda. Her resume should be a cautionary tale to anyone who underestimates what a woman can do behind the stick.

Ivy Mix who, with Lynette Marrero, founded the famed women’s bartending competition Speed Rack, also struggled against soft sexism when she moved to New York in 2008. “No one was saying, ‘You have a vagina. You can’t bartend,’” Mix says. “It was more, ‘Hey, I think of you more as a cocktail waitress.’ Back then, a guy with a mustache and suspenders was a bartender, and women didn’t fit into that ideal.”

Like Reiner, Mix’s vindication would come, if years later. In 2015 she won the coveted Spirited Award for American Bartender of the Year at Tales of the Cocktail. “Not the world’s best ‘female’ bartender. The world’s best bartender. Period,” says Ann Tuennerman, founder of Tales of the Cocktail.

These female bartenders are opening doors for a generation of women coming up behind them, says Charlotte Voisey, director of Brand Advocacy of William Grant & Sons USA. “Mentors like Julie, Ivy and Lynette have done tremendous work for women, but even more importantly, leading by example,” she says. “You can ask any younger female bartender who inspires them, and they will drop one of their names, if not all three.”

Despite such mentoring and progress, even today some places do not hire women. “There’s a bar, owned by a woman, not far from here that won’t hire women,” says Sonja Kassebaum, co-owner of North Shore Distillery north of Chicago. “I don’t do business with such places.” And Reiner has seen this in New York. “There are quite a few places that still don’t have women behind bars,” Reiner says.

Last spring, the parent company of the award-winning Employees Only bar came under fire for a sexist post about hiring badass women as cocktail waitresses in their new Singapore location.

Cris Dehlavi, head bartender of M Restaurant in Columbus, Ohio, and Pisco Porton brand ambassador, who was ushered into the Dame Hall of Fame last year at the Tales of the Cocktail, says this issue has created an uproar. “Women are really on the rampage, and it’s really being discussed,” Dehlavi says.

Just having a discussion means changes will happen, says Orlowski. “It’s kind of like the old saying ‘What gets measured, gets managed,’” she says.

“I am so happy with the progress women have made,” says Tuennerman. “Still, there’s work to be done. For example, a writer would never ask a man what it’s like to be a male brand ambassador. But women are asked questions like that all the time: What is it like to be a master blender, a brand ambassador, a bartender.”

Anna Mains, who with her husband Drew, owns four bars in Oklahoma City, hired a predominantly female bar staff at their latest venture, the Rockford Cocktail Den. “It was not my intention, but it just happened that way,” Mains says. “Most women I’ve met in this industry are completely amazing.”

Caitlin Laman, general manager of Trick Dog in San Francisco and national 2014 Speed Rack champion, wants gender to become a non-issue in bartending. “I wish I could read a story and not see the word female. I wish people would just say bartender,” Laman says. “I wish people would stop talking about it. It’s not a thing if you keep pointing it out. Then again, I’ve made a very good career out of it. I feel very confident I could move anywhere in the world and get a job, and that’s a pretty cool thing to be able to do.”