Women, pubs and 'female-friendly'

By Janet Eldred

"Can I help you with the research"? That's the first question I get when I tell people I'm writing my master's dissertation on the subject of women and pubs. Sure, who wouldn't like a legitimate excuse, and an academic one at that, to go out drinking? The second question varies, depending on whether the person is male or female. Men ask me why I'm investigating this topic; women know why, and they skip to asking me what I've discovered so far.

As regular readers of Ouse Boozer know, I came to York from the States last October and immediately became a pub fan. So much livelier and friendlier than American bars, and serving much better beer, pubs quickly became a major part of my social life. It was a natural next step to join CAMRA, and from there to persuade my supervisors at the university that women and pubs was a bona fide feminist topic. For the past few months, I've been reading books and articles (some scholarly, some popular), visiting pubs, interviewing women pub-goers and brewery reps, and talking to just about anyone who's tolerant enough to share their thoughts with me. My research is still underway, so I have no firm conclusions. This is what I'm hearing so far.

1.) A generation ago, most women did not go to pubs alone, they went in the company of men (husbands, fathers, boyfriends, etc.). A woman entering a pub on her own, unless she was specifically meeting someone there, was virtually unheard of. If such a thing did happen, everyone knew what she was there for, and it wasn't the beer.

2.) Until very recently, women didn't drink real ale, and if they did, they drank it in half-pint glasses. Women drank sweet drinks, wine, or lager from small glasses. A woman drinking a pint was unfeminine, full stop.

3.) Most pubs were (and still are) male spaces, into which women were allowed only grudgingly. Men tolerated women's presence as long as they (the women) stayed away from the bar, the pool table, the darts board, and the telly, and kept the noise down if they were in groups.

4.) In general, city pubs are more progressive in accommodating women than rural pubs, and the newer themed pubs more so than the traditional boozers.

Everyone has a different opinion and a different interest in this topic. As you might expect, viewpoints are as varied as the number and types of pubs and people who go to them. Some say things haven't changed and never will; others say women have been completely accepted into pubs, and that the traditional all-male spit-and-sawdust boozer won't survive much longer. Some women have had bad experiences in pubs in the past and refuse to give them a try again. Other women have had very few poor receptions and love their locals, and the male regulars in them.

In thinking of what makes a pub female-friendly, suggestions have included: the availability of food, smoke-free rooms, space for children, well-kept ladies's toilets, pub teams for women, newspapers, and a range of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks; disabled-persons access; friendly bar staff; no offensive materials on display; and safety of the immediate neighbourhood. Yet, many of these things would also be important to men, wouldn't they? So, isn't a female-friendly pub just a friendly pub? Or is that missing some important issues?

I'm not sure yet where all of this is leading; it's a work in progress. If you have any ideas you'd like to share on any of the above, please feel free to write to me c/o Ouse Boozer.

Janet B. Eldred, 1997