Brooklyn Public Library

Mobile AppDownload our Mobile App

eNewsletterSubscribe to BPL eNews


So What'll It Be?

Nov 4, 2009 4:49 PM | 1 comment

Barmaid Lee serves a drink, 1950

The Brooklyn Navy Yard wasn't the only workplace taking in women during the war.  Brooklyn's bar scene was also reliant upon the female workforce.  In 1939, a group of female bartenders formed Bar Maids Local 101, an official union for women who had taken on the important duty of pouring drinks and lending an ear to war-torn Brooklyn. 

Bobby shakes a mixed drink for her male customers, 1950To legitimize their work, members of Local 101 completed three months of job training before they were employed.  They were also agreed not to work past midnight or give their last name to patrons.  Local businesses praised these women for maintianing the industry and creating a comforting atmosphere during a time of stress.  By the end of the 40s, the union included over 100 barmaids working in 75 Brooklyn bars. 

When the original workforce returned, the bartender and barmaid unions seemed to coexist peaceably.  But in January 1950 Assemblyman Alfred A. Lama of Brooklyn proposed an amendment "barring barmaids from bars" (as the Eagle so eloquently put it).  The female response made the cover of the Eagle, calling Lama a "chaser" and an "old meanie."  The head of Local 101 explained that the unions had been working together without any conflict.  But within two days, the Bartenders Union was singing a different tune.  With political backing, they took to the streets and protested against their female counterparts: 

Eagle Headline, January 25, 1950

Barmaid Lorretta (below) argued, "A woman has to make a living, and what's wrong with bartending?  During the war it was patriotic for us to work."  Another union member, Lee (at top), stated that she had two children at home and found that tending bar was more lucrative than other jobs.  The protesting bartenders claimed they were not starting a battle of the sexes - they just wanted their jobs back.  The secretary-treasurer of the Union claimed that he was "100 percent behind this amendment," but when he was asked if a woman's place was in the home, he had no comment.

Barmaid Lorretta Protests the Protests, 1950Not everyone was so shy about defining the roles of women and bar employees.  In early February, the Eagle polled eight Brooklynites and asked for their perspectives.  Charles Snyder of 470 Eastern Parkway stated, "When I'm out bending the elbow the last thing I want to see is a woman - unless she's Lana Tuner."  Suzanne Pfeiffer offered an interesting compromise, "Maybe there should be handsome men bartenders to wait on women cutomers and pretty barmaids for the boys.  Then everyone would be happy."  Charles Roberts explained, "It's fascinating as the devil when women are behind the bar.  They combine sympathy with charm and eye appeal.  What more can a guy expect of any bar?"   Other articles noted that it was inappropriate for women to work in bars, that women could not mix cocktails as well as men, that women working in bars would "encourage prohibitionists" and that men were better able to handle the occasional barroom brawl.  Each of these arguments was countered by women (and men) who believed these views to be "old fashioned." 

New York Times Headline, May 27, 1950

Eventually, the Brooklyn stories died down, suggesting that Lama's bill lost steam.  But Brooklyn was not alone in this battle.  That same spring, Manhattan bar workers entered a dispute when five barmaids were refused admittance to the Manhattan Bartenders Union (which already represented female waitresses).  The union picketed the barmaids' bar at 711 Eighth Avenue and took the case to the New York Supreme Court.  A lawyer for the Union argued that barmaids were "Un-American" and noted that many other cities, includuing Chicago, had already banned female bartenders.  The court did not force the union to admit the women, but it upheld the idea that women had the right to work behind the bar.  The decision didn't quite give barmaids equal rights, but it did allow them to continue serving.



11/6/2009 10:33:11 AM #

Charming bit of Brooklyn history.

Monica Berger