How women got the right to bear booze, barely

The Classic Cat on Sunset Strip was a favorite haunt of celebrities.

I was discussing this anomaly with an imbibing patron, ironically while dressed as a woman, on Halloween. Democratic debate at its finest.

“Where are your boobs?” a woman asked me, noticing that I was not just dressed as any woman, but rather as a Hooters waitress, sans a couple of things.

“Does it make me less of woman because I don’t have large breasts?” I asked giving the questioner a double dose of political correctness. I don’t think she got the joke, because she didn’t laugh.

“Did you know it was illegal for a woman to be a bartender in California until 1971?” asked her older female friend, who got the joke and laughed.

“That’s impossible.” But as I later found out, it was, in fact, very possible.

Section 25656 of the Business and Professions Code of the California Alcoholic Beverage Control Act used to read: “Every person who uses the services of a female in dispensing wine or distilled spirits from behind any permanently affixed fixture which is used for the preparation or concoction of alcoholic beverages, or in mixing alcoholic beverages containing distilled spirits, on any premises used for the sale of alcoholic beverages for consumption on the premises, or any female who renders such services on such premises, is guilty of a misdemeanor, and upon conviction is punishable by a fine of not more than one hundred dollars ($100) or by imprisonment in the county jail for not more than three months, or by both such fine and imprisonment.” And it was fully in force until the Supreme Court of California struck it down on May 27, 1971 in the landmark case Sail’er Inn, Inc. v. Kirby.

Author Fred Strebeigh covers the case extensively in his 2009 book, “Equal: Women Reshape American Law.” He documents how Sail’er Inn had employed female bartenders in direct violation of Section 25656. The ABC was in the process of suspending its liquor license when Sail’er Inn’s attorneys argued that the section was in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which specifically outlawed “discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” The attorneys further argued that their clients, by obeying the California law would be in violation of Federal law. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court of California, which found Section 25656 to be “repugnant,” ordering it removed and halting the suspension of Sail’er Inn’s liquor licenses.

A triumph for women’s’ rights, right? Except for one little wrinkle. Sail’er Inn was the corporation’s name. The actual name of the restaurant was the Classic Cat and it was owned by former actor Alan Wells. Located in the space previous occupied by the Jerry Lewis Club (1959 — 1964) at 8844 Sunset Blvd. it was right in the heart of the Sunset Strip. The Classic Cat was a favorite haunt for celebrities, everyone from Evel Knievel to Jim Morrison passed through its doors. Maybe it was the buffet lunch. Or the happy hour from 5 to 7 p.m. Or maybe, just maybe, it was the “continuous topless entertainment.”

That’s right — this paragon of women’s rights, the very vanguard in the fight for equal opportunity for women in California’s bars and restaurants was a topless bar. “Tops in Topless” accoring to Joey Bishop. Its entire case had been built on the fact that it wanted to have topless women bartenders. And the restaurant won. Sort of.

While the case was working its way up the judicial ladder, the ABC quietly added Rule 143.2 to its repertoire. So in late 1970 it became illegal to “employ or use any person in the sale or service of alcoholic beverages in or upon the licensed premises while such person is unclothed or in such attire, costume or clothing as to expose to view any portion of the female breast below the top of the areola or of any portion of the pubic hair, anus, cleft of the buttocks, vulva or genitals.”

Leaving me with these thoughts:

• Section 25655, which forbade women from serving beer from a fixed bar wasn’t removed from the books until 1976.

• Elizabeth Cady Stanton (a distant relative of my wife) was both a staunch supporter of women’s rights and the temperance movement.

• My first tip while dressed as a woman was 30 percent. FYI.