A Long Road to Prominence: Women Behind the Bar

By Andrew Turnwall


Andrew Turnwall

March 21, 2017

Posted in Restaurant Management, Industry & Culture

From civil rights protests, to courts, to competitions, women continue to work and fight for their craft…

Last time out, we reviewed a cocktail recipe book made to honor and celebrate feminist icons from all fields all around the world. Now, we’re gazing inward and taking a look at the state and history of women behind the bar.

From Ada Coleman, the unlikely head bartender of The Savoy’s American Bar in a time where it was illegal in many places for women to even tend bar, to a famous all-female bartending competition we’re delving into the long trip women have had from obscurity to prominence behind the bars we all love.


A Past on the Rocks

According to Jeanette Hurt, the author of Drink Like a Woman: Shake, Stir, Conquer, Repeat, in the early 1900’s, there were around 150 women bartenders in America. This made up just about .3 percent of American bartenders. By comparison, there were about 7000 women doctors, making it, as Hurt says, “50 times more common to see a woman wielding a stethoscope than a shaker.”

Despite gains women made over the years, especially filling in and gaining jobs during World War Two, laws on the books prohibited women from bartending, or in some cases even serving or entering establishments that sold liquor, existed in nearly thirty states as recently as the 1970s. From Hurt again, “This isn’t ancient history. I didn’t realize that women in some places weren’t allowed to bartend until 1971 or ’75.”

The Supreme Court even ruled in favor of keeping women from bars in 1948. But when a protest and a fight is coming women have shown themselves more than equal to the challenge. In 1971, the California Supreme Court took up a case of job discrimination thanks to the efforts of a feminist clerk named Wendy Webster Williams. The court struck down a sexist ruling and opened the way for women to bartend. Agreeing with the court’s own opinion, any kind of discrimination based on gender et al. is “arbitrary and without support in logic or experience.” Across the country laws the precedent began to take hold.

The cumulative effect of these victories and bold actions is that, despite a lack of recognition, women now make up 60 percent of bartenders nationwide.

Notes From the Frontline

This isn’t to say that the transition has been a smooth one, or that today it’s all gin and rose water. Women still put up with and work against a flow of obstacles, from sexism to customer expectations to unequal pay. For example, studies show that women only earn 87 cents to every dollar a man does behind the bar, and while the overall number of women bartenders has made them the majority, high end bars still sport a large majority of male bartenders. While that gap in pay is smaller than in other industries, it still exists as a constant burr to be dealt with.

Customer expectations can similarly detract from a day at work. Being mistaken for a server or a barback is a regular phenomenon. Being hit on and in some extreme cases groped is an occurence I can’t attach the word “rare” to. Women in the hospitality field are actually five times more likely to file sexual harassment complaints than in any other field.

But, let’s not be entirely full of doom and gloom.

Women as bartenders are still on the rise. Ordinances that took years to change, whether in the courts or town by town, are disappearing and opening the way for a new generation of women. Organizations and programs for training, education, and anti-harassment are cropping up all over the country. The Dead Rabbit Grocery & Grog and Death & Co are among a number of world renowned establishments with female head bartenders or bar managers. Across the board, while not always in a straight line, women continue to fight and to make progress.


An Encouraging Future

And the gains women make continue to grow not only for themselves, but for the community around them. In 2011, despairing of the lack of women bartending in the best bars in the world, Ivy Mix (2015 Spirit Award Bartender of the Year) and Lynnette Marrero (Bar Consultant and founder of LUPEC) founded Speed Rack, a bartending competition for women which we’ve written about before. Girls with Bols, a mentoring group dedicated to training the next generation of great women bartenders, was founded by Kate Gerwin, the first woman to win the prestigious Bols around the World Championship. All around people are propping up a fast growing force of women who are taking their spot in the world of bartending, crafting classic cocktails, brewing, etc.

Beyond the national, local groups are popping up to foster individual community growth as well. Groups like the Bar Biddies, founded by Buffalo bartender Kerry Quaile, bring together a community not just of industry experts but of regular people looking to learn, to enjoy themselves, and to support charitable causes.

“Having a community of women now in this industry is not only a great achievement, but also an introduction to a different approach to cocktails and bars in general,” says Quaile. Changing the demographics of the community to reflect reality not only offers up a better representation of a bar’s patrons, but a widened view of what a great craft cocktail can be.

From fighting Prohibition to smashing the patriarchy, women have a long history with the bar, whether behind it, defending it, or redefining it. The future, for all of us who enjoy a good drink, is in good hands.


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One comment so far... Add your thoughts?
  1. Right on ladies!! We, as females, have to put up with SO much more behind the bar than males. As you said, sexism, being hit on, groped, trying to come up w ways of deflecting the “creepy-guy ickiness” without disturbing the peace or compromising our morals, etc. I’ve now encountered a new struggle from the inside. I’m a bartender in the South and at times have to be on a shaded outside patio. My usual wintertime apparel is either black pants and shirt or (since we’re permitted to wear “street clothes”) jeans boots and a cute sweater. However, when summer hits, I revert to black on black server apparel or I have a few cute dresses. So, here’s the struggle: my very fashion-conscious female boss tells me she’d like to see me in more dresses this summer. Keep in mind the dresses I do have are not too tight, low-cut or short, nor are they sleeveless or strapless because hey, I’m bartending, not schmoozing at a cocktail party. Our bar/restaurant is on the upscale side and it’s hard to find cute trendy dresses with these specifications without looking too matronly. AND try finding cute, quality shoes that look good with those dresses AND function for long hours behind nasty bar deck floors. Any advice or insight?

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