How Women Found a Place at the Bar and Table
In April 1868, the journalist Jane Cunningham Croly (writing under the pen name of Jennie June), tired of being excluded, compelled a group of women to join her at Delmonico’s restaurant in New York City. Before this could happen, Croly had to ask the restaurant’s owner to defy social expectations and allow the women to lunch without men. They were the first to break gender barriers, but nearly a century later, women were still being excluded from some NYC bars and restaurants. It was not until 1970 that women were finally welcome. One of the most well-known battles for acceptance was at McSorley’s Old Ale House.
In 2015, the New York Times featured the memories of Barbara Shaum, the first woman allowed into McSorley’s Old Ale House after a 1970 New York City ordinance banned discrimination against women in public places. (Prior to the 1970 ruling, the bar’s motto was “Good Ale, Raw Onions and No Ladies.”) Knowing that women would have to be let in for the first time in the bar’s 116-year history, the alehouse’s manager, Daniel O’Connell-Kirwan, called Shaum and invited her to the bar. She was known to the neighborhood because her leather goods shop was located down the street. “I put on a big straw hat and I walked in on Danny’s arm,” she recalled. “It was a big milestone.”1 McSorley’s was not unique in excluding women. Many New York City restaurants—including Whyte’s, the Russian Tea Room, and Sardi’s—banned women during lunch hours, restricted them to isolated sections, or kept them from the bar area.2 These policies were not subtle. Signs prominently noted “men only,” “no unescorted ladies will be served,” or “ladies entrance at the rear.”3
Racial discrimination at lunch counters was once a common problem, especially in the American South. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned whites-only lunch counters and discrimination in restaurants and other “places of public accommodation.” Several historical projects have documented the fight to desegregate the lunch counters. But there was another sort of discrimination in restaurants and bars that lasted long after the civil rights movement: the exclusion of women.
There were two common reasons for women to be banned. First, excluding women from restaurants, or at least from sections of restaurants, was a regular practice in the many places where men held lunch meetings. The justification for their exclusion was that men had a limited time to eat lunch and women would monopolize tables as they gossiped and ate slowly. It was assumed that men would have a working lunch, which demanded efficiency. Having women in the room would slow down the process.
Second, an unaccompanied woman at a bar was often considered a prostitute. Bar and restaurant owners claimed to be afraid that the men would become victims of these women, sometimes known as bar girls or b-girls who were “deceptive, professional barroom exploitresses.”4 Thus, worried that inebriated men would be preyed upon, restaurants were excluded women. This was done officially through restaurant policy, and also by law in some places. In Louisville, Kentucky, for example, an ordinance specifically forbade women from drinking alcohol at restaurant bars. One woman who protested the exclusion of women in bars did so by marching with a sign that read “Women Who Drink Cocktails Are Not All Prostitutes.”5
To provide a broader view of the discrimination in the 1960s, women, even when accompanied by men, could be excluded from a restaurant for simply wearing pants. An August 1966 New York Times story began, “Pants, tailored or formal, and the women in them, are being greeted with less than enthusiasm by the men who run many of the city’s leading hotels and restaurants.” For example, La Côte Basque declared that pants were no more appropriate than swimsuits for women in the restaurant.
One woman noted that it was easier to get into a restaurant wearing lingerie than pants. She said that she was turned away wearing a pin-striped pantsuit but allowed in when she wore a lacy black slip. A manager of the Plaza Hotel was quoted saying, “Pants are pants, and if women wear them, they’ll be asked to leave.”6
Change, however, was inevitable. Along with the protests and lawsuits, some restaurant managers were beginning to realize they were turning away profits. “One night I turned away eight parties, some of my best customers, and some of these women in pants looked beautiful,” one manager recalled. “I went home that night and I said, ‘what am I doing?’ and the next day I changed the policy.”7 A mix of social change and business interest eventually led to more restaurants allowing women in wearing pantsuits.
By the late 1960s, questions about race and gender roles were being openly questioned—in ways big and small. In 1969, the National Organization for Women (NOW) declared February 9 to 15 as Public Accommodations Week. Members organized dozens of “eat-ins” and “drink-ins” in cities across the United States. The most widely covered was the visit of The Feminine Mystique author Betty Friedan and about thirty other NOW activists to the Oak Club of the Plaza Hotel, where women were excluded before 3 p.m. on days the stock exchange was open.8 The NOW members argued that important business was conducted at the Oak Club. Women’s exclusion from restaurants was, therefore, a form of employment discrimination.
While NOW members were targeting bars and eateries across the country with sit-ins and protests, NOW attorneys came up with a new legal strategy. In a shift away from a focus on employment discrimination, they argued that excluding women was a violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. After the first two legal attempts failed, lawyer Faith Seidenberg and plaintiff Karen DeCrow filed a lawsuit against McSorley’s Old Ale House. In Seidenberg v. McSorley’s Old Ale House (1970, United States District Court, S. D. New York), the court ruled that, as a public place, a bar could not be in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution. In other words, women could not be excluded.9 This was a significant ruling as civil rights lawyers had been unsuccessful in using this argument for public accommodation discrimination in the early 1960s.10 The opening of McSorley’s to women was so newsworthy that it made the front page of the New York Times.11
A year after the plaintiffs won in federal court, New York City Mayor John Lindsay signed a bill prohibiting gender discrimination in public places, thus requiring restaurants and bars to allow entrance to women.
Even after the courts ruled in the women’s favor and the legislation clarified that women could not be discriminated against in public establishments, change was not automatic. A New York Times article noted that women initially “drank peaceably” after being admitted at McSorley’s, but according to a former owner of the bar, “It was an awkward time—we had a donnybrook every night. It took a long time for the dust to settle.” Of course, this wasn’t limited to McSorley’s. Lucy Komisar, a NOW vice president, was rebuffed by a bartender who refused to accept her driver’s license as proof that she was over the drinking age of eighteen. He demanded her birth certificate instead. The two engaged in a short wrestling match before the manager allowed her in to a chorus of “boos” from regular patrons. Later, an angry man poured his stein of ale over her head.
It took a century for a mix of activism and legal change to allow women to exist in New York City public bars and restaurants on the same level as men. Jane Cunningham Croly would have been shocked that it took one hundred years after her pioneering lunch at Delmonico’s for women to be able to eat in restaurants without men, and to enter bars, as a matter of policy. But she would also have been pleased that it finally happened.
- Corey Kilgannon, “The First Woman Let Into McSorley’s Reminisces (Over an Ale, of Course),” New York Times, January 22, 2015.” ↩
- Georgina Hickey, “Barred from the Barroom: Second Wave Feminists and Public Accommodations in U.S. Cities,” Feminist Studies, Fall 2008, 383. ↩
- Georgina Hickey, “Barred from the Barroom: Second Wave Feminists and Public Accommodations in U.S. Cities,” Feminist Studies, Fall 2008, 388. ↩
- Amanda H. Littauer, “The B-Girl Evil: Bureaucracy, Sexuality, and the Menace of Barroom Vice in Postwar California,” Journal of the History of Sexuality, April 2003, 171–204. ↩
- Georgina Hickey, “Barred from the Barroom: Second Wave Feminists and Public Accommodations in U.S. Cities,” Feminist Studies, Fall 2008, 389. ↩
- Enid Nemy, “A Dilemma for Restaurateurs: Where Do Slacks End and Pants Start?” New York Times, August 3, 1966. ↩
- Bernadine Morris, “Women in Pants: Even Staid Offices Concede It’s Fait Accompli,” New York Times, October 2, 1970. ↩
- David Dismore, “Today in Herstory: NYC Bar Refusing Service to Women Will Face a Federal Suit,” Feminist Majority Foundation, June 24, 2015. ↩
- Faith A. Seidenberg, “The Federal Bar v The Ale House: Women and Public Accommodations,” Valparaiso University Law Review, 1971, 318–25. ↩
- Georgina Hickey, “Barred from the Barroom: Second Wave Feminists and Public Accommodations in U.S. Cities,” Feminist Studies, Fall 2008, 400. ↩
- Linda Charlton, “Judge Tells McSorley’s to Open All-Made Saloon to Women,” New York Times, June 26, 1970. ↩
Kimberly Wilmot Voss (PhD, Maryland), is a University of Central Florida full professor and author of The Food Section: Newspaper Women and the Culinary Community, Politicking Politely: Well-Behaved Women Making a Difference in the 1960s and 1970s and Re-Evaluating Women’s Page Journalism in the Post-World War II Era (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018/2019). She is also a co-author of Mad Men & Working Women: Feminist Perspectives on Historical Power, Resistance and Otherness.
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