History

5 Bars Where Women’s History Happened

The front of a Chicago bar called The Berghoff.
After a crowd of women (including Gloria Steinem) stormed The Berghoff demanding to be served in 1969, owner Herman Berghoff ended gender segregation in Chicago bars. (Photo: Peter Merholz/Flickr)

The history of women in the spirits world has (rightfully) been getting more attention in recent years, but much of it has focused on individual women and their contributions. Less has been said about the actual institution of the bar and how it also has a vital place in women’s history. In some instances, bar culture has been a reflection of changing societal gender norms; in others, it has been a site of rebellion against outdated ones. And always, bars have been a place where people go to seek community. For Women’s History Month, here are five important bars where you can go to honor resistance and persistence, and find friends to drink with.

1. The Berghoff, Chicago

There have been several notable instances of bars finally allowing women through the doors (the Storming of the Sazarac and McSorley’s decision to integrate come to mind), but few involved an actual drink-in led by a feminist hero. The Berghoff in Chicago is an iconic bar and restaurant that opened in 1898 as a men’s-only saloon. While women were eventually allowed to eat in the dining room, the Berhoff kept their bar a lady-free zone well into the 20th century.

In 1969, the women of Chicago decided that enough was enough. Seven members of the National Organization for Women, including Gloria Steinem, descended upon the bar and demanded to be served. Legend has it that the owner at the time, Herman Berghoff, was so intimidated by them that he hid in his office the whole time the ladies were there. He did, though, decide that cutting his potential customer base in half was perhaps not the best business decision. He allowed the women to drink, effectively ending gender segregation in Chicago bars.

2. Pegu Club, New York City

If you’ve ever sipped a sparkling Old Cuban, or enjoyed a drink at Death & Company, then you have Audrey Saunders and her bar, Pegu Club, to thank. Pegu Club’s influence on the cocktail world is impossible to overstate: its bartenders have created modern classics like the Penicillin, as well as opened bars like PDT, Attaboy, and the aforementioned Death & Co.

And none of it would have been possible without Saunders; the bar served as her laboratory and her university. Her method of obsessively tasting and tweaking cocktails down to the last dash of bitters helped bring up a generation of bartenders who who didn’t just make drinks, but understood them. Saunders and Pegu Club brought recognition to not just women in bartending, but to bartending as a whole. It’s a contribution that any cocktail lover can appreciate.

3. Pied Bar, Provincetown

Originally known as the Ace of Spades, this Massachusetts establishment is alleged to be the longest continually-running lesbian bar in the United States. Opened in the early 1950s, it was initially a members-only club — Jackie Kennedy was infamously turned away for failing to present proper ID. Eventually the regulations were lifted, allowing everyone to drink and dance without membership.

Whether Pied Bar or Ace of Spades, the bar was one of the first places to cater specifically to queer women, providing them a safe space to socialize, flirt and simply live their lives.

4. Brass Rail Bar, Port Huron

Though it’s hard to imagine now, for many years there were laws in place preventing women from tending bar. Michigan led the wrongheaded way, with its ban on female bartenders eventually being upheld by the Supreme Court. The Brass Rail, however, ignored that rule from the start: recognizing its potential, Elizabeth Hibye converted the family ice cream parlor into a bar after her husband’s death. In response to the notion that ladies should not run bars, Hibye responded: “A lady is a lady no matter where you put her, but she’s got to have a buck in her pocket.”

Hibye’s daughter, Helen David, worked side-by-side with her mother and eventually took over the Brass Rail, where she worked until her death in 2006. In fact, she was so dedicated to the business that the TOTC Lifetime Achievement Award is named after her! The Brass Rail keeps Helen’s traditions alive today, from serving Tom and Jerrys at Christmas, to continuing to support and mentor outstanding bartenders.

5. Coyote Ugly, New York City

Before Tyra Banks and Jerry Bruckheimer got involved, there was just a girl with hustle and a dream. While it may seem a bit outdated now, when Liliana Lovell opened the original Coyote Ugly in 1997, a bar with a bunch of badass women who were in charge of their sexuality and unapologetic about milking every dollar out of their male customers was a revelation.

With a female owner and manager, and an all-female staff, Coyote Ugly was on the cutting edge of the girl-power revolution. Sure, there’s more to feminism than women’s right to dance on a bar, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that Lovell took an idea and built an empire. And she did it by bringing up women every step of the way.

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