The Women Who Held Down the Bar During World War II

A woman behind a bar in a black and white photo.
When men left to fight in World War II, women filled many industries left otherwise unattended to, including bartending. Women stepped behind the bar and began to imprint on the industry forever. (Photo: National Library of Australia)

It’s likely you’ve heard of “Rosie the Riveter,” a piece of government propaganda whose posters encouraged women: “We Can Do It.” As men went off to war, women were expected to pick up the slack. Although many women followed Rosie to factory jobs, others moved behind the bar.

Eric Felton coined the term “Bessie the Bartender” when writing about this group of women in the Wall Street Journal in 2009. The moniker is catchy, but distinctly modern, notes Jeanette Hurt, author of “Drink Like a Woman: Shake. Stir. Conquer. Repeat.,” a more historically correct term would have been Bessie the Barmaid, a gendered but not (then) derogatory term. Felton quotes a 1942 article in Time magazine, commenting on expanded employment opportunities for women. "There is hardly any job — truck driver, mechanic, cobbler, oyster shucker, engineer, bartender, butcher, baker or candlestick maker — that women cannot get.” Women everywhere were answering Rosie’s call to action with a resounding: “We can, and we will.”

This was hardly the first time a woman had stepped behind a bar, although it had been rarer. “At the turn of the century women were 0.2% of all bartenders,” says Hurt. “To put it in perspective, women who were doctors were 50 times more common than women who were bartenders, and women doctors were not really common.” Though the history is tumultuous, swirling with concerns about the propriety of women coming in contact with alcohol at all, let alone serving it, the numbers rose. “In about 1940, 2% of all bartenders were women,” says Hurt. “By 1945, 1000 women were mixing drinks in New York City alone.”

Even with so many men at war, there continued to be worries about whether a woman should be serving drinks. “as a compromise, [Brooklyn’s Bar Maids] Local 101 agreed that members were not to work past midnight or give out their last names,” writes Christine Sismondo in her book “America Walks Into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops.” She says, “There really is this worry about the breakdown in the family. And that's kind of a concern with all women going to work during the second World War, and then especially if it's involving alcohol. Then there's these ideas about women not knowing how to make a good drink, or not knowing how to drink a good drink because they don't know how to drink whiskey, and then the danger behind the bar of women not being able to eject drunks.”

But for many women, bartending wasn’t a way to flirt with immorality. “During wartime, those women helped keep sanity for the older men who couldn't go off to war, giving them a place, and an ear, a family and a community,” says Lynnette Marrero, Co-Founder of Speed Rack. “And also, for these women, it was the only way that they were able to provide for themselves.”

Marrero began digging into WWII bartender history as part of a project with other members of LUPEC (Ladies for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails). “We did a lot of research on who these women were and why women were drawn to this kind of work, and it goes down to the center of the family,” she says. “It was the kind of job that gave them the flexibility to be home with their families and then have someone watch their children while they slept so they could go and make a living.”

Like Marrero, Hurt notes that bars were a place of community in WWII, just as they had been before and have been since. “I would argue that if you go back, historically, taverns have always been gathering places. They may not be a necessary thing, but it is the things that cause pleasure that make life worth living,” she says. “I would think the bartenders who took over the bars kept up the morale. They probably also served Rosie after her shifts — they probably distributed news, and were a place for neighborhood gossip, they were probably integral to communities.”

For Misty Kalkofen, madrina for Del Maguey Mezcal, and also a member of LUPEC, it goes beyond wartime necessity. “It's inspiring that there were all of these amazing women who were able to step up at a time when it was kind of seen as verboten and say ‘you know what? Nope. Now is the time, now or never.’”

Kalkofen was struck by Audrey Saunders’ conclusion to their Tales of the Cocktail seminar on women bartending history. “She was talking about how women, we have this aspect of us that is always a caretaker, and for that reason this whole idea of being behind the bar is very natural for women because everything about being behind the bar is about hospitality and self sacrificing, to a certain degree, because your job is to make other people happy in that moment,” she says. “So when you're talking about a time frame when a lot of really terrible things were happening and families were being torn apart, it seems natural to me that women would have come into this situation where it's like ‘We need to do this in order to boost the morale of the people that are still here and offer this thing to them.’ It's no surprise to me that it was an easy transition for women into that space.”

The war didn’t last forever, and with the much-anticipated end came a renewed discomfort with women bartenders. “Right after World War II there's this struggle with the fifties housewife,” says Marrero. “We've liberated these women, but now we want them back in a space where we can contain them. It became quite a challenge because you had given these women opportunities to be self-sustaining and to have their own careers and lives and then all of a sudden it came back to: ‘No, we want you in the home.’ That was a really big struggle for the women who came back after basically serving at home. If you think about it, that's what they were doing, giving their service in a very different way for the war, and then for all of those rights to be stripped post-event was a bit of a shock.”

Almost immediately after the end of the war, many states passed legislation banning women from working as bartenders, with certain exceptions for establishments owned by those women’s husbands. “I think the most interesting part of the story is this massive push back, starting in 1946,” says Sismondo. “Some of that is really just about men wanting to be able to take their jobs back, but some of it is anxiety over the breakdown of the family and women becoming too masculine and losing their values.”

“In 1948, 17 States had laws against women bartenders,” says Hurt. “It would grow to 26 different states.”

Suddenly the women who had done their bit for the war effort at home, providing community and caring for themselves and their families found that their efforts were no longer required.

“There were people who would have been deeply and profoundly affected by that. They had their livelihood, a thing that they really enjoyed, maybe they were the main breadwinner for their family, and to be sort of forced out of your job through legislation shows you just how hysterical people were about the idea that the the family unit was at threat and there was going to be a breakdown of values and society as a result,” says Sismondo “It sounds kind of trivial and light, the idea that ‘we've got to get the women out from their bar jobs,’ but there would have been real victims at that time and that could have really put families into jeopardy. Ironically, you could really hurt a family with this pro-family legislation.”

Many of these laws weren’t retired until the 1970s. “I think the thing that I find most interesting is some of these restrictions and changes they happened within our lifetime, or shortly before,” says Hurt. “This isn't ancient history. I didn't realize that women in some places weren't allowed to bartend until 1971 or ’75. Today maybe there's some discrimination, but it's not like it's weird to see a woman bartender. It never occurred to me that a woman wouldn't be a bartender. I think that is something that's really changed.”

As Sismondo notes, “We don't move in any kind of linear progression towards equality, sometimes we take massive steps backward.” But in spite of the post war backlash, it’s clear that the women who stepped behind the bar during the war paved the way for the generations that would come after them. Although only 10% of bartenders were women in 1960, the most current census shows that the percentage is now 60%. These brave predecessors answered the call of service to their country in their communities with “Yes, we can,” but they went beyond that. To the generations that came after, they continue to say: “You can, too.”

Cara Strickland writes about food and drink for online and print publications. She’s always up for a conversation about cocktail history, preferably over a Corpse Reviver #2.

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