We Can Drink It: Imbibing as a Feminist Act
On December 2, 2016, Americans elected their first female president. The thing is, she spent her career stationed behind a bar, not a podium. Last year, Pamela Wiznitzer beat out the United States Bartenders’ Guild’s standing president of six years to become the very first female bartender to lead the organization in its 50-year history. “I wanted to help diversify the leadership that was seen at the top,” Wiznitzer says. “And I wanted to help set the tone that women have a place in leadership.”
While the first female presidential nominee for a major political party didn’t quite make it to the Oval Office, this triumph was a big step for women and booze, because just like everything else, drinking is political.
In Merrily Grashin’s new illustrated cocktail book, Women’s Libation: Cocktails to Celebrate A Woman’s Right to Booze, the Brooklyn-based bartender, illustrator and pun master transforms the simple act of stirring and shaking up cocktails at home into a feminist history lesson. Drinks like the Morning Gloria Steinem, Simone de Boulevardier, Take Pickle-back the Night, Mosc-NOW Mule, Frida Kahl-ada, Birth Cointreau’l and many, many more cleverly named cocktails include a brief, conversation-starting tale of a prominent woman, organization or feminist victory in history. Bound in a millenial pink cover with a portrait of Rosie the Riveter (Or Rosé the Riveter, on page 145) about to chug a bottle of blush wine, the book represents a contemporary form of accessible, digestible (in this case sippable) feminism that, along with conquering challenging issues and fighting for the further equality of women, allows people, regardless of educational background or upbringing, to start considering and discussing feminist issues.
“It’s like old school pamphleteering,” Grashin says of her book. “All the dudes I know need a copy of this.” The idea came when she was drinking with a friend at a bar, doodling and thinking of punny cocktail names like the Michelado Obama, which eventually grew to a list of over 100 female heroes and their boozy counterparts. “I wasn’t a [feminist history] expert when I started making this,” Grashin says, but a push for diversity and intersectionality led her to learn more about feminist leaders across cultures and generations, who she hopes will be discussed when budding mixologists make the recipes from her cocktail book. “I’m excited that this book could possibly be used in that way, as a power for good,” Grashin says. “When you start drinking, ideas start flowing.”
When female drinkers leave the home, however, conversations change and perceptions shift, thanks to a centuries-long history forbidding and stigmatizing women who sip booze in public, especially without a male companion. In countless movies, a business man drinking something brown and cold in solace is regarded as powerful, whereas a woman drinking solo is most likely slumped over a Pink Martini in a bar, depressed and pathetic. Or, perhaps worse, the man drinking with friends is an enviable partier, getting cooler and cooler with every pint of beer he downs, while the woman chugging the same number of brews is perceived as reckless, irresponsible or needy. I don’t have to name any characters—you know the scenes. The tropes are old and irrelevant, but when have you seen a woman on screen treating herself to a much-deserved Martini? Even in real life, a man sitting alone at a bar is contemplative and content in his own solitude, while a single woman, or better yet, a woman with a book, is often perceived as an open invitation. “What are you reading?” has to be the worst thing a person can say to a fellow imbiber who came to be alone with endless pages of fiction and a good drink, though imagine a cis-het man saying that to another cis-het man—it doesn’t happen. Bars are a place of socialization but also solitude, if desired, but only for one sex is this ever truly possible.
“As a bartender, there is a lot more responsibility to look after or take care of a woman by herself,” Grashin says. “At the end of the day, it is kind of a newer thing for a woman to be alone at a bar.” In her role as a bartender, Grashin feels like she’s supporting women by giving them an opportunity to go out and enjoy drinks safely and without stigma. But still, even in New York, “all bartenders I know look out for women in the room,” Grashin says. After a few drinks, a woman may still become a target for male predators, but, of course, in a feminist universe that wouldn’t be the case.
“I argue with people about this all the time—becoming inebriated doesn't mean you're supposed to be a victim,” says Alex Allred, athlete and author. Allred competed on the first U.S. female bobsled team in the Olympics in 1994. There, she caught on to some not-so-subtle sexism including the fact that men could openly receive exorbitant sums from liquor sponsors and go out partying, while female athletes were pretty much barred from alcohol endorsements, and getting drunk during the games would be a major faux-pas. Even celebrating a big win with Champagne for women was a no-no, while male competitors were (and continue to be) expected to shake up bottles of bubbly. Allred now teaches self-defense courses, which include instructing women on how to be safe, careful and smart, whether or not they’ve been drinking. “It bothers me that victims and alcohol don't mix,” Allred says. “As soon as someone finds out the victim was drinking or drunk, she's instantly accountable for those actions. This victim blaming crap has got to stop.”
The act of throwing back a beer after work does not, per se, a feminist make, but the social stigma, politics and finances surrounding drinking certainly connect to feminism. Despite clashes that feminism and capitalism may have, choosing how to spend money in America’s capitalist society can lead to greater implications for women in the liquor industry—be that actively choosing to spend time at women-owned bars or seeking out a bottle of booze that’s distilled by the rare female distiller. As Wiznitzer says, “You can invest in feminism” by supporting women and other marginalized people in a male-dominated industry.
“Feminism is the movement to end sexist oppression and it is linked to other movements to end other forms of oppression, such as racism, poverty, homophobia, transphobia, etc. Feminism is connected to social justice. There does not appear to be anything about drinking per se that achieves these goals,” Dr. Deborah Cohan, associate professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina-Beaufort, says. “However, the stigma that women still face for drinking and drinking too much can become an issue for feminist struggle.”
This connects back to the perception of drinking as freedom, a sign of adulthood and a rite of passage for many. Historically, women couldn’t drink in saloons, taverns and restaurants across America, and just being able to enjoy a whiskey on the rocks alongside men was a move towards equality for women in the Prohibition era. “Some claim that the temperance movement is the shining example of American feminism,” Cohan explains. “Many women’s rights activists (including famed suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton) came to feminism through participation in the temperance movement, [which] gave women the opportunity to be engaged in public life and in the political arena, and to enter into even that most sacred of male spaces: the saloon.”
But in an era where gender-segregated drinking spaces are pretty much non-existent in America, the idea of consuming alcohol as a sign of independence has an even greater meaning. “We need to consider if part of the stigma [of women drinking] is because we're a culture that is wary of women being that free, empowered and self-possessed and find it threatening,” Cohan says. “The more access women have had to power, success, politics and business, the more advertisements feature women looking as small as possible and infantilized.”
Enter: The Most Interesting Woman in The World. She doesn’t exist yet, but Allred is pushing to make her a reality for Dos Equis campaigns. “I was tired of watching one man constantly surrounded by women—non-drinking women—who fawned over his amazing bravery and brilliance,” Allred says, of what inspired her to write the international beer brand, petitioning for a woman to take the job. Allred herself (who, after speaking with her on the phone, I can confirm is very interesting) was vying for the spot, but she’d happily see another woman like herself take the spot (a few credentials: competed in the Olympics while pregnant, played professional football for Sports Illustrated, a fourth degree black belt, chased down a shoplifter on her wedding day—with her “best woman” as her side kick). “Women have always known that women are amazing, and women have always empowered other women,” Allred says. “But we're just not ready for the most interesting woman in the world to be seen drinking. Right?”