It only took 200 years for a self-evident truth to be realized in the bar business

In my bartending career, I have had the great pleasure of collaborating with many awesome female bartenders. I also know that perhaps the best-known female bartender, Coley Coleman (listed as one of the top nine bartenders of all time by presided over the bar at the famous “American Bar” in the Savoy Hotel in London from 1903-1925. There is some irony to that, not because the American Bar wasn’t in America, or that Coleman herself wasn’t American, or that the “American Bar” was open when bars in America weren’t (Prohibition lasted from 1920-1933). But the biggest irony is that women weren’t allowed to be bartenders in many States in the U.S. until recently, including, almost unbelievably, our very own.

We are hearing a lot about women’s rights at this moment due to the controversial overturning of the landmark Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade, which was handed down in 1973. But did you know that it was illegal for a woman to serve beer from behind a counter in California until 1976? And that it had been illegal for a woman to work as a bartender in our great state until 1971? With recent events I feel that a partial retelling of this story is in order.

 Section 25656 of the California Alcoholic Beverage Control Act (Business and Professions Code) once 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 that law stood in full force until May 27, 1971, when the all-male California Supreme Court (Justice Rose Bird wouldn’t join the court until 1977) struck it down calling it “repugnant” in the landmark case Sail’er Inn v. Kirby. 

Sail’er Inn had employed female bartenders in direct violation of Sec. 25656, and the California ABC was in the process of suspending their liquor license. Sail’er Inn’s attorneys argued that Sec. 25656 was itself in direct violation of the recently passed Civil Rights Act of 1964, which had outlawed “discrimination” based on amongst other things, an individual’s sex, and that by obeying the California Law, they would be violating Federal Law. In 1971 Sail’er Inn won their case and hung onto their liquor license. A victory for women’s rights!

Only, Sail’er Inn wasn’t the name of the bar, it was the name of the corporation. The name of the bar was the Classic Cat, and it was located at 8844 Sunset Boulevard, the very heart of the Sunset Strip. Owned by the former actor Alan Wells (1951’s “The Great Missouri Raid”, 1957’s “Richard Diamond, Private Detective” and 1962’s “Cape Fear”) the Classic Cat wasn’t just a bar. It was a topless bar.

 Housed in the building that used to be the old Jerry Lewis Club (1959-1964), the Classic Cat featured “continuous topless entertainment” and they wanted to employ topless women bartenders. What they got instead, was just women bartenders.

While the case was working its way through the California court system, the California ABC added Rule 143.2. In late 1970, six months before the Classic Cat won its case 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 any portion of the pubic hair, anus, cleft of the buttocks, vulva or genitals.”

This rule, with its specifically female prohibitions is still on the books. Specific prohibitions on male nudity behind the bar still have yet to be defined.

Leaving me with these thoughts:

-“We hold these truths to be self-evident…” reads the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence. But how self-evident is a truth if it took exactly 200 years for that truth to be applied to women completely in bars in California?

-There were exceptions to Section 25656, allowing in some cases, for wives, widows and heiresses to be behind the bar. But special permission was needed.

-If something needs to be a “long standing tradition” to be considered an unalienable right, I might point out that slavery existed in this country for twice as long as women have had the right to serve beer from behind a bar in California.

-It’s a disgrace that even still in this country, the United States of America, it is still a group of mostly men who get to decide what a woman’s rights are. Or are not.