Monday, October 7, 2013

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“WANTED, A BEAUTIFUL BARMAID – Women Behind the Bar in New Zealand, 1830-1976” by Susan Upton  (Victoria University Press, $NZ50) 

Forgive me for presenting you with a challenge like this, but consider the following paragraph, with which Susan Upton opens Chapter Two of Wanted, a Beautiful Barmaid, her informative and thoroughly researched history of the connection between women and the sale of alcohol in New Zealand.

Upton is here considering New Zealand attitudes to barmaids in the late nineteenth century:

Barmaids, or ‘hebes’ as they were colloquially called, first worked in this country in the goldfield pubs. Respectable New Zealand was shocked to hear of publicans’ deliberately hiring female, in preference to male, bar staff and advertising them as an attraction of the House. Barmaids were contracted to serve drinks and in some instances dance with the miners. The temperance movement believed barmaids were employed because of their sexuality: their job being to entice men into the bar and, once there, to persuade the men to buy expensive drinks and to stay there later than they would normally. To prohibitionists the occupation of ‘barmaid’ epitomised the greed and immorality of the liquor trade. The employment of barmaids caused the gender of bar staff to become an issue in the liquor licensing debate inside and outside parliament….” (p.38)

If you are like me, then at once there will spring to your mind stereotypical imagers of hatchet-faced wowsers, shocked by both drink and irregular sexual relations, and attempting to shut down people’s harmless fun. And then, immediately, the counter-thought will come. Actually, the anti-drink campaigners were quite right to see something devious in the publicans’ hiring practices with bar staff, and they were quite right to see the connection between sex and the sale of alcohol. And, though it still hasn’t percolated to the general public consciousness, all serious historians now agree that in their campaigns, the temperance people had a real case and were addressing a real social evil. In a way, it is an evil that is still with us. Are (legitimate) current worries about adolescents’ binge-drinking, or for that matter the harm done by illicit drugs, all that far removed from fears about destructive drinking habits in colonial New Zealand?

Susan Upton’s book shows a fine awareness of both the legitimacy of the temperance case, and yet the odd attitudes towards drinking that were in part encouraged by the temperance movement. As her introduction tells us – and as most New Zealanders have long since forgotten - there was a half-century in which women were forbidden by law to serve alcohol in New Zealand pubs, and were actively discouraged from becoming hotel licensees.

Not that Pakeha New Zealand was like this to begin with.

In the wild early days (Chapter 1) of the 1830s and 1840s, a largely male Pakeha population drank itself silly. A staggering 4,000 barrels of spirits were imported into New Zealand annually in the 1830s, when the Pakeha population was at most a few thousand. At the time of British colonisation (after 1840) women were entitled to be licensees just as men were; but very few took up the option. Until 1883, women who married lost all their property to their husbands, hence some single women were disinclined become licensees if they had to pass their licence to a husband should they marry. However, a male publican’s widow was allowed to retain her husband’s licence. From the earliest days, drink was commonly associated with vice and prostitution. To counter this, says Upton, many women licensees worked hard to build an image of respectability and were happy for their customers to call them “Ma” or “Mum” or “Mrs”. The attitude of male drinkers to a woman licensee was often something akin to that of naughty little boys to a stern but affectionate mother.

The extensive employment of barmaids began (Chapter 2) in the goldfields at the time of the Otago and West Coast rushes. Goldfields were very masculine places. At the height of the gold rushes, there were only 30 females to every hundred males on the fields. Indeed, in the 1860s and 1870s, in the 20-to-39 age groups, men in the whole of New Zealand outnumbered women more than two times over. Prostitution and various forms of the sex trade flourished in such conditions. Barmaids during gold rushes were specifically employed as an attraction for male drinkers to ogle. Though the gold rushes were long over by the 1880s, when temperance and prohibition began to be debated, it was still this image of sexual temptresses, which the temperance movement used in its campaign against barmaids. Susan Upton notes that there genuinely was prostitution associated with pubs and taverns, but she also notes that (a.) most barmaids were also general-duty servants in hotels; (b.) a high proportion of barmaids were members of the licensee’s family (wife; daughters); and (c.) a high proportion of barmaids found marriage partners among their customers. In other words, they were generally regarded by local communities as “respectable” people.

It was between the 1880s and the First World War (Chapters 3, 4 and 5) that the prohibition movement was at the height of its influence. Although the gold rushes were over, it was still to some extent a frontier society where there were real problems with drunkenness and drunkenness-associated violence. Susan Upton notes (p.72) that by 1879, New Zealanders drank annually 2.12 gallons of hard spirits per head of population - meaning the drinking part of the population was drinking much more than that. In 1878 in Christchurch there were only 5 dentists and 5 chemists; but there were 41 pubs and 6 breweries.

Women were a major part of the temperance debate at both ends of the argument, with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) pitted against barmaids and female licensees. WCTU women were angered by such advertisements as this 1893 one in the Lyttelton Times, with its implication that looks alone counted in such employment: “Wanted, Stylish Barmaid for first-class hotel; if suitable applicant, previous experience not necessary.” (quoted p.81) William Fox and others agitated for the outlawing of barmaids under the age of 30. Yet at the same time there was still a strong strand of public opinion that believed women were a civilising influence on male drinkers, and that their presence in bars was to be encouraged.

Under the new Licensing Act of 1881, liquor licences were allocated by local elected boards. This meant that temperance and prohibition campaigners could be elected to licensing boards and slow down the rate at which licences were granted. In
1888, a loophole was closed when married women were no longer able to take out licences in their husband’s name, when they themselves were running a licensed hotel. But the closure of this loophole was often honoured more in the breach than in the observance, as many boards gave licences to women of good character anyway.

Nevertheless, the lobby against drinking was growing, a sure sign that uncivilised drinking and associated behaviour were still worrying communities. One argument which members of the WCTU advanced for the outlawing of barmaids was that it would make more young women available for domestic service and therefore solve “the servant problem”. Such an argument would seem to reinforce the idea that many prohibitionists were middle class people, interfering in the social lives of their social inferiors. Yet as John Stenhouse and others have noted, this notion is wide of the mark. In working class suburbs like Christchurch’s Sydenham, the backbone of the prohibition movement was working-class women, fearful of their husbands drinking away the family’s income.

The rise of prohibition as a popular mass movement worried hoteliers who, in 1890, founded the Licensed Victuallers’ Association (LVA) specifically as a form of self-defence. The propaganda war over licensing became intense. Often very rough tactics were used when female licensees and prohibitionists clashed. Susan Upton gives (p.106) anecdotes of a female licensee luring a prospective audience from a temperance lecture by offering alternative attractions in her pub; and of another licensee attempting to have a teetotaller member of the Invercargill licensing board convicted of sly-grogging. She also quotes examples of rival stereotyping from the two side of the liquor debate:

The language The Prohibitionist used denigrated women working in the liquor trade. If they wrote about a landlady they would sarcastically italicise ‘lady’, or bracket it with a remark ‘(very much ladies)’. In one article they presented the stereotype of the female publican. ‘This lady who is an orthodox landlady in that she is buxom, red faced, and not overweighted with refinement.’ On the other side, The Observer and NZ Truth supported the liquor industry and depicted wowsers, in print and cartoons, as priggish spoilsports and old women. They copied arguments used by The Bulletin in Australia, frequently pointing out that ‘people will not be made virtuous by an Act of parliament.’ ” (p.90)

Regardless of the propaganda, conditions in which female bar staff worked were often unsavoury. A 1913 enquiry found that the New Criterion Hotel in Christchurch was, in effect, cover for a brothel, with barmaids encouraged to serve men champagne in their bedrooms. There were also more routine perils that faced women behind the bar:

All bar staff, male and female, had to cope with violence both verbal and physical. Although men were said to tone down their language if a woman was present, swearing was the most common form of assault against a barmaid. If the culprit was found guilty the penalty was severe. A barmaid in the private bar of the Albert Hotel in Wellington had a man thrown out for using filthy language. He returned and went to punch her when she came out from behind the bar to remonstrate. She was saved by a customer grabbing his fist. There was the fear that asking someone to leave would cause a fight, although regular customers frequently came to the rescue of ‘their’ barmaid…” (p.102)

            When laws were passed to prevent barmaids serving after 11 pm, they were seen as protecting working women. Yet not all WCTU women were anti-barmaid and some saw the whole issue of attempting to have barmaids outlawed as a distracting side issue to the great cause of limiting or forbidding the sale of liquor itself. It should also be remembered that there was nothing peculiar to New Zealand in the campaign against barmaids. The employment of barmaids actually was actually outlawed in the USA and Canada at the time the issue was being debated in New Zealand.

Finally, on 12 November 1910, barmaids were outlawed in New Zealand by act of parliament. The move was fully supported by the LVA, which wanted to clean up its image in fear of the rising prohibition vote, and to deprive prohibitionists of a useful propaganda tool linking sex and booze.

For fifty years, then, from 1910 to 1961 (Chapters 6 and 7), and in a move largely supported by male-dominated trade unions, no new barmaids could be employed. Those who were working in 1910, at the time the new act was passed, could continue working, so long as they were listed on a register that was set up in 1911. Some younger women found dodges to get on the register, and in some country areas the register was simply ignored. Even so, the net result of the legislation was that it was just a smaller but hardy group of aged barmaids who soldiered on. Now the stereotypical New Zealand image of a barmaid became that of a middle-aged or elderly woman who had the authority to control drinkers and calm rowdy behaviour.

The absence of female bar staff hastened the introduction of six o’clock closing, in 1917, at a time when the First World War meant a greater absence of men to serve drinks. The whole liquor trade suffered a major downturn in the depression of the 1930s, when most New Zealand males simply couldn’t afford to drink as prodigiously as they once had. New Zealand drinking habits changed once again during the Second World War when, only partly influenced by the habits of American servicemen stationed here, more women began to drink in public bars, from which it had hitherto been customary to banish them. In 1948, it became illegal to not serve women in all bars, but convention on the whole kept women to lounge bars and out of the public bars. There was another major change in 1952, when the law at last allowed women (married or unmarried) to hold liquor licences once again. Pub owners now feared a loss of custom to newly licensed clubs and restaurants. There was a rush to make bars more salubrious by carpeting them etc. and once again there was the argument that women were a good civilising influence on male drinkers.

 “By the mid 1950s some hoteliers began to prepare for the end of 6 o’clock closing and view women as potential customers. There was talk of ‘civilised drinking’, with lounge bars where men and women could sit at tables and chairs to be served alcohol.” (p.150)

So at last, after fifty years, barmaids were legalised again in 1961, in a quiet parliamentary debate that caused little controversy. Thus much had the power of the temperance and prohibition movements faded since the beginning of the century.

However (Chapter 8) it was not really until after the introduction of extended drinking hours in 1967 and the abolition of the “6 o’clock swill”, that many new barmaids were employed, and even then they had to be a minimum of 25 year of age. There was still much resistance from hotel workers’ unions to the over-employment of women in hotels, just as there was much public resistance to women serving drinks in public bars. The tradition continued of men wanting a fully male drinking environment. The new licensing of taverns underlined this, with the new breed of “booze barns” in the 1960s and 1970s. These were often centres of old-fashioned masculine rough-house. For all that, attitudes changed gradually. By the late 1970s, gender discrimination in the workplace was made illegal. There were attempts to de-genderise language and to promote gender-neutral terms such as “bar staff” and “bartenders”. But as Susan Upton’s very last pages clearly show, you cannot separate sex from the selling of liquor, and the barmaids Upton interviewed see themselves as giving a “performance” for male customers.

This should be the end of this informative history, except that Susan Upton’s conclusion shows that public drinking is still a problem in New Zealand. She writes:

Many of the barmaids I interviewed who started working in the 1960s were appalled by what they see as a more destructive society today: Ladies’ nights, poor manners, women drinking too much, vandalism, blocked toilets and obscenities scrawled in lipstick on mirrors. Some felt lowering the drinking age to 18 in 1999 had made matters worse.” (p.180)

So the problematic story of women and booze continues in New Zealand.

I have purposely written this notice in the form of a summary rather than a commentary for a very simple reason. Wanted, a Beautiful Barmaid is solidly researched (60 pages of notes, bibliography and index), agreeably written, well-illustrated and nuanced in its interpretations. Upton does not take sides in the alcohol-versus-prohibition debates but simply notes their tactics, justifications, appeal and impact. More than anything, though, the book tells me that there will always be debates over the sale and conditions of sale of liquor. It may have a focus on women, but its central impact is to recapitulate the whole history of licensing in New Zealand. Because of this, it is a book that appeals by its deployment of facts, and it is these I have summarised.

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