Barflies & Cocktails
Drinks With a Chaser of Sexism
The problems female drinkers and bartenders have historically faced in bars—and still do today.
A couple of things in the news recently have got me thinking about Bob Ruark’s wife.
Ruark, a he-man syndicated American newspaper columnist of the he-manniest sort, back when that sort was thick on the ground, had a wife who was no shrinking violet herself. “Mama,” as he called her in print (her name was Virginia Webb), was a fully grown adult who could take care of herself and didn’t like people pretending otherwise.
What got me thinking of her was reading about Paul Freedman’s new book, Ten Restaurants That Changed America, which devotes a chapter to Schrafft’s, a restaurant chain designed specifically to appeal to women diners.
Now, Schrafft’s was all well and good, but its restaurants didn’t have bars. So what if, like Virginia Webb-Ruark, you liked to have a drink or two before your veal cutlet or French onion soup? And what if your husband was away? What if he was off in the Navy, as Ruark was during World War II, escorting convoys of war supplies to Murmansk through seas infested with Nazi U-boats and dive bombers and torpedo boats? You might really need that drink.
But in the 1940s, most “respectable” full-service restaurants—ones, that is, with bars—placed severe restrictions on unescorted women, if they allowed them at all. They could only sit at tables, they could stand at the bar but only until 6 o’clock, they couldn’t come in in groups smaller than three, etc. All of this was supposedly precautionary lest they prove to be hookers on the prowl.
In Ruark’s 1948 compilation of columns, I Didn’t Know It Was Loaded, he recorded Mama’s thoughts on the subject in a discussion she was having with a female friend. I’m going to let her run for a bit, as I never believe in stopping a train when it’s got a full head of steam and clear tracks ahead:
“When my husband… was away, I used to get tired of staring at myself over a sandwich and a glass of milk, and I would occasionally call up a girlfriend and go out someplace fancy for a few drinks and a good dinner. I was thrown out of more places than the average bum. You walk in, ask for a table for two, and the headwaiter says, ‘I’m sorry, but we do not serve unescorted ladies here, modom [sic],’ and turns away. What am I, a B-girl?…By damn I am a nice girl and I love my husband and I refuse to be classed as a bad woman in the eyes of a headwaiter because I am unaccompanied by some jerk in pants, from choice, because my husband is often away. It makes you feel like you came there on purpose to arrange a pickup and in a democracy I resent it… It seems… that it is all right to get crocked if you are accompanied by a dreat big stwong mans, but it is a sin for a lady to take one standing [alone at the bar], even on the doctor’s prescription for low blood pressure.”
Fortunately, those days are long gone. Or—well, that’s the other thing that got me thinking about Mama. The Washington Post’s Carrie Allan recently wrote a column about women bartenders in craft cocktail bars and the particular needles they have to thread, including dealing with all the common forms of sexual harassment. It wasn’t the column itself, which I found balanced and intelligent (and I’m not just saying that because I’m quoted in it), that brought me to Mama. It was, sigh, the comments. I know about reading the comments—don’t @ me, as they say. But I read them anyway, all 360 of them at this writing.
Like working a short-order griddle, tending a modern cocktail bar is a job for quick thinkers and hard workers. It requires one to be an on-the-fly systems engineer, processing multiple variables and coming up with a plan of action even as you’re already placing that plan into execution. If you don’t believe that it’s a serious and challenging job, try to make five complex, precision-measured, six- or seven-ingredient drinks, perfectly portioned and garnished, in six minutes, without cursing, eye-rolling, or breaking things. I’ll bet you cash money you can’t even come close. I’ll even spot you the curses, eye-rolls, and breakage.
So, I’ve always thought that the mostly young women I encountered behind bars of this sort were there because they were capable of doing a challenging and strenuous job with skill and verve and stamina. Certainly that’s been my experience with them, no different from the mostly young men who do the same job.
Silly me. Apparently, according to a great many of the comment posters, I am mistaken. The young women were hired, it turns out, essentially to be just B-girls, their primary responsibility being to flirt with and flatter and gratefully field sexual advances from their customers. “It’s a friggin’ compliment, ladies,” as one gentleman wrote.
And now they have the nerve to complain! As another of these gentlemen patiently explained to the internet, “Now that they’ve taken all the jobs away from males by using the woman-as-sex-object card, they want to play the woman-as-sex-object-who-can-have-it-all card to have all the respect males had for actually earning their positions.” If these young women want to earn that respect legitimately, yet another of these mighty hunters points out, “they will get an education and get a job that’s respectable.” (Here I should point out that most of the craft cocktail bartenders I know, male and female, did in fact go to college, and chose high-end bartending—a far more ancient and useful American profession than, say, filing TPS reports.)
In fact, best get them out of the bar all together: “If I wanted to talk to a woman,” quoth yet another (albeit with slightly worse grammar), “I’d go straight home after work.” (He is fortunate that he has a bar to which he regularly goes where only men work, as is his wife.)
This is where I really started thinking about Virginia Webb-Ruark and daydreaming of turning her and her friends loose on these drum-circle philosophers. What the hell has happened to American men, I must ask. When Robert Ruark heard his wife’s complaints, he printed them. When these guys hear similar complaints, they fall all over themselves to be the headwaiter that Mama was complaining about.