Last week, the Manhattan Cocktail Classic took over dozens of venues in New York for a celebration of spirits, cocktails and the leaders in the industry. One of the more unique events was the Women Behind Bars seminar at Pegu Club on Saturday afternoon. Over rum punch, hanky pankys and gin mojitos, the speakers offered an overview of the historical role of women in the business of drinking.
The discussion was sponsored by LUPEC (Ladies United for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails) and traced the involvement women bartenders from medieval Europe to today. Two recurring themes came across whether they were discussing public houses in England, taverns during the American Revolution, bars during the Industrial Revolution, saloons of the Western Migration, speakeasies of Prohibition or the modern cocktail lounge. First, women were both implicitly and explicitly used by men to attract men to places where liquor was sold. Second, women have always had to fight for access, rights and respect when it comes to being involved in this culture. Sometimes they had to fight moral attacks, sometimes they had to fight misogynistic attitudes. Sometimes they had to fight each other. It was their success in those battles that helped shape the environment we have today.
Nightlife culture became a focal point for social change in the role of women in a manner that was similar to minority integration and the rise in LGBT acceptance. None of these groups have taken control of nightlife away from the establishment, but they have changed the perception and experience of nightlife that we have the luxury of taking for granted today.