Here in England, the Covid restrictions mean that table service has been adopted by many pubs. Whether you click on an app or click your fingers to attract someone’s attention, it seems a lot better than before.
As two fairly short women, our young adult days seemed to be spent standing on tiptoes at a bar waving a five pound note to try and attract the server’s attention. In the worst places, five-deep bar queues provided a drunken smokescreen for unwanted touching as bar staff continued to ignore you. At gigs, there never seemed to be enough bar staff so it was better to go without any drink at all.
But the right for women to be served at a bar – whether buying a round of drinks, a packet of crisps or even just approaching to ask where the loo was – is fairly recent. Until 1982, women could be refused service in British pubs, and many were.
Some pubs were de facto ‘men only’ zones because they did not offer any women’s toilets. We’ve been in other pubs where the staring and lack of service have driven us out. And there used to be places which had signs saying that women were welcome to sit at the tables, but must not approach the bar area. In our lifetime, some pubs had an actual line on the floor that women were not allowed to cross.
In Victorian times, there were a lot of women landlords and some establishments doubled as brothels. Women regularly appeared in court charged with drunken and disorderly behaviour, but ‘decent women’ were not expected to enter. Pubs often had an external hatch or window where women could have jugs filled with beer to take home.
Eventually, pubs started to develop different rooms for different classes of customers; lounges for the middle class and the public bar or tap room for the working class. By the 1950s and 60s, women were accepted in the plusher areas, so long as there was at least one ‘men only’ space and the toilet facilities had been put in.
In 1969, the bar of a hotel in New York was stormed by a group of feminists who claimed that the ban on unescorted women was a civil rights violation. This article by Sascha Cohen about the first-wave feminist struggle for equal treatment in bars, restaurants, clubs and hotels is fascinating:
In the UK, two women were banned from El Vino pub on Fleet Street because they stood drinking at the bar with their male colleagues rather than sitting at a table. After successful legal action at the Court of Appeal, in 1982, women could no longer be refused service in pubs.
“Following the decision, Gill, Cootes and other women headed straight to the bar at El Vino, brilliantly leading one bartender to comment, “There are more women at the bar than men – it’s chaos”.
In one bar in Scotland, things took even longer. A spirited feminist protest in 1973 resulted in police removing women who had burst into The Grill on Union Street, Aberdeen, demanding to be served. After the Sex Discrimination Act was passed two years later, women could not be barred – but there was no women’s toilet in The Grill until 1998. A short dramatised film about this story, called ‘No Ladies Please’ was released in 2019.
Now that covid regulations and fears have threatened the viability of many pubs and music venues, they’ll be grateful for anyone to come and buy a drink, but it’s still difficult to order drinks when the bar is higher than your chin!