Freedom Behind Bars! The Fight to End the Ban on Female Bartenders in Milwaukee

May. 3, 2016
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Why would a woman want to be a bartender?

The Milwaukee Journal posed this question in March 1967, as a movement was growing to eliminate the city-wide ban on female bartenders. Lorraine Coubal, proprietor of the Dreamland Bar on South 27th Street in Franklin – a suburb that did allow women to bartend – offered a quick answer. “Where else can she work and get paid and smile and yack and smoke and drink and be free on a job?”

Coubal’s last point – to “be free” – was driving the cause to break the city’s gender-barrier among whiskey-slingers. Milwaukee women wanted the freedom to prove themselves at any job a man could do – especially one in such a rowdy and typically male-dominated domain as the corner tavern. Women were permitted to work in bars – as waitresses, dancers, singers, etc. – but since the end of Prohibition, the city had refused to issue bartending licenses to women, save for the wives or daughters of the establishment’s proprietor. This meant that it was illegal for any woman not directly related to the owner to “draw a drink” – literally put the liquid into the glass – for any customer.

Evidence suggests, however, that women were regular tavern employees. During a 1937 canvass of city bars by a group of ministers compiling a report on Milwaukee’s sinful night life, more than 2,200 women were found working in bars – a number higher than that of Milwaukee women enrolled in college. Whether contented to work in their permitted roles (unlikely) or simply ignoring the ban and serving drinks illegally (more likely), Milwaukee “barmaidens” made no major attempt at winning the right to become licensed bartenders until the 1960s.

The issue gained traction in 1965, when a number of other municipalities, both local and national, were dropping gender restrictions on bartending. Milwaukee’s common council was cool to the idea. Alderman Mark Ryan was concerned for the safety of a woman allowed to tend bar. “A woman alone in a tavern might be prey to molesters and attackers,” he told a reporter. Alderman Fred Schellert was more blunt, “Never! It isn’t proper!” he spat.

A woman pours a glass of beer in 1952 in an unidentified bar. Milwaukee City officials worried that a woman would not be able to handle the rough crowds that saloons sometimes attracted.  

Schellert’s statement neatly summed up the general feeling of the council towards the issue – save for the body’s lone woman. “Women should be allowed to do what men can,” Alderwoman Vel Phillips said of the ban. “The double standard is antiquated.” Phillips, however, was in the clear minority on the topic and the issue lingered until 1967, when a proposal to drop the ban was introduced, but died in committee.

That same year, 52-year-old Juanita Kaemmer, the wife of a retired Milwaukee police officer, applied to the city clerk for a bartender’s license. More than a year after she applied, the common council’s licensing committee denied her request by a 4-1 vote, the only “yea” coming from Alderwoman Phillips. In response, the Wisconsin Tavernkeeper’s Association filed suit against the city, claiming the ban on female bartenders was unconstitutional.

In January 1970, circuit court judge Maurice Spracker ruled in favor of the city.

“There is more to being a bartender than drawing a glass of beer,” Spracker said in his ruling. “It is not a matter of denying to a woman a constitutional right to equality of employment, but rather it is a matter of protecting the women from the built-in hazards which are inherent in this type of employment… the nature of a bartender’s work and working conditions prevailing for a bartender in a big city provide ample reason [for the ban].”

Later that year, however, the Wisconsin Department of Industry, Labor, and Human Relations handed the city a cease and desist order on enforcing the rule, after another woman – 25-year-old Dolly Williams – filed a complaint with the state after her bartending license application was denied. Williams said she already had a job waiting for her at Teat’s Corner Tavern on North 12th Street. All she needed was a permit from the city. “I know I can do it,” she told the newspapers. The city appealed the order, but in March 1971, a Madison court sided with the state and the common council announced that on April 1, gender would no longer be considered in the granting of bartending licenses. On that day, 14 women applied for permits, and one of the city’s glass ceilings was smashed for good. 


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