Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Fifty Years Ago in Chicago, It Was Illegal for Women to Bartend


Historical marker outside She-nannigans, 16 W. Division St in Chicago.

In 1951, the City of Chicago enacted what came to be called the 'barmaid ordinance.' It prohibited women from "pouring, mixing, or drawing intoxicating liquors" in a licensed establishment unless they owned it or were related (as wife, sister, or mother) to the owner. Chicago wasn't unique. Michigan had a similar law that survived a Supreme Court challenge and the state of Illinois had related laws that made Chicago's ordinance possible.

When the first Playboy Club opened in Chicago in 1960, women could serve drinks but couldn't legally make them. A woman couldn't even draw a beer. It was against the law.

Later that decade, She-nannigans became the first bar in Chicago to employ all female bartenders in a deliberate effort to 'bust' the ordinance, hence the “She” in its name. The bar hired some of the female flight attendants who lived in the neighborhood to tend bar on their days off. It was, as they like to tell it, "a modest act of civil disobedience."

She-nannigans is still there. It bills itself as a "sports and Karaoke bar" now, but remains proud of its founding purpose.

The whole business was more serious than the lighthearted way it is remembered on Division Street. The ordinance was largely ignored for more than a decade, until Chicago's Superintendent of Police James Conlisk, Jr. suddenly decided to enforce it and began making arrests. 

A lot of things happened on Conlisk's watch. He was in charge of the cops during the riots that followed Dr. King's assassination, the 'police riot' that rocked the Democratic convention later that year, and the police murders of Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. Several of Conlisk's high-ranking subordinates were indicted and eventually convicted for shaking down tavern owners. Arresting female bartenders using that old ordinance was part of the extortion scheme.

After Conlisk's cops started to make arrests, bars all over town began to fire their female bartenders. Nearly four hundred unionized African-American female bartenders lost their jobs. Their union, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, and their Local 444, refused to support them. The unions backed the ordinance.

In 1968, fourteen female bartenders, two male tavern owners, and the Metropolitan Tavern Association brought a class-action lawsuit against the city in Federal court. The trial court transcripts are both disgusting and hysterical. Someone should put them on stage.

The main justification for the 'barmaid ordinance,' as the lawyer representing Chicago helpfully explained, was that a woman could use her sexual allure to "hypnotize" a man into buying excessive amounts of liquor. "A poor fellow would not know what he was drinking and, lo and behold, if something happens in that bar the licensee can lose his license but Mary can go across the street and go to work there," he argued. The judge suggested that maybe it would be okay if the women simply dressed like men. "Especially if she is shirted or tied so that the bosom is not unduly exposed nor the dress by tradition unduly suggestive," he opined.

The fact that women could legally wear 'suggestive' costumes while serving drinks at the Playboy Club did not, apparently, seem relevant to either side.

There were ultimately two different cases, McCrimmon v. Daley (quoted above) and Daugherty v. Daley. In McCrimmon, the court eventually ruled that, "sex is not a bona fide occupational qualification reasonably necessary to the normal operation of the business of tending bar in the City of Chicago." The barmaid ordinance was held void in view of the supremacy clause of the Constitution because it violated the 14th amendment and conflicted with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which was still getting some of its earliest courtroom tests, especially with regard to discrimination on the basis of sex.

The McCrimmon decision came down in March, 1970. In 1981, March was declared "Women's History Month."

The 1974 Daugherty decision, which She-nannigans celebrates, dealt with similar state laws that also were ruled unconstitutional. 

Half-a-century later, the idea that women should be legally prohibited from any line of employment seems ridiculous to almost everyone. Perhaps the issues that divide us so fiercely today will seem just as ridiculous in another 50 years. 


Rob K said...

That plaque has a misspelling. Overboard should be overbroad.

Chuck Cowdery said...

That's funny. You prompted me to check the decision, to see if perchance it is misspelled there as well. It's not. "Overboard" kind of works too, doesn't it?

Rob K said...

It does make a kind of sense. I double checked the decision before I commented. I've read a lot of court rulings where laws were struck down for being overbroad so it stuck out to me.

Brian (AKA The Dean) said...

I've been known to go overboard over a broad.