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Women behind bars: Women bartenders talk gender politics in cocktailing 

click to enlarge Abigail Gullo of SoBou and Lu Brow of Cafe Adelaide and the Swizzle Stick Bar found careers mixing craft cocktails.

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

Abigail Gullo of SoBou and Lu Brow of Cafe Adelaide and the Swizzle Stick Bar found careers mixing craft cocktails.

Don't call bartender Becca June Conklin a "server" or "barmaid," and definitely don't ask whether she's a dominatrix, as did one guest. The man later apologized, saying it was his first time in the city and he didn't know the proper thing to say.

  "Just treat me like a normal human being," said Conklin, who works behind the stick at Bourbon O Bar in the Bourbon Orleans Hotel. "Just because you're in New Orleans doesn't mean you can be obscene. You're still in polite society."

  Not so long ago, taverns weren't considered any place for politeness or, for that matter, women. It wasn't that long ago that women were barred from many drinking establishments, but now they're playing a more prominent role behind the bar, crafting drinks and setting trends.

  At the 1968 national conference of the National Organization for Women (NOW), feminists were still tackling men-only bars as a civil rights issue, writes historian Georgina Hickey in her article "Barred from the Barroom."

  In 1969, NOW activists staged nationwide "drink-ins." Hickey notes that some bar owners protested that women couldn't be trusted to know how to pay a check or tip; others said that bars were the "last stronghold of masculinity" and business lunches were better left to men. Women famously stormed the Sazerac Bar at the Roosevelt Hotel in 1949, and in the early 1970s, NOW took action against establishments in New Orleans, including at the Hotel Monteleone and its men-only bar.

  During that era, Lu Brow idolized Gunsmoke's Miss Kitty, the saloonkeeper who was a "feminine power figure, operating in a man's world. She kept everyone in line," says Brow, a bartender at Cafe Adelaide and the Swizzle Stick Bar.

  Culturally, Miss Kitty might have helped the cause. Legally, feminists scored a groundbreaking victory in 1970, when a federal judge ruled (Seidenberg v. McSorley's Old Ale House) that having a liquor license was enough to trigger the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause.

  By that decade's end, bars were begging for women to come, offering "ladies night" discounts and drinks specials.

  Soon after that, Cheryl Charming took her first bartending job, at a cabaret nightclub in Arkansas. Raunchy drink names, she says, reflected the times.

  "The bar has a subtle sexual nature to it," says Charming, who manages Bourbon O Bar. She still gets her share of propositions. "Guys will ask, 'What time do you get off?' They're always surprised when I say 4 a.m., because the bar closes at 2 a.m. They don't realize that I have to stay and clean up and restock the bar."

  Like their male counterparts, women bartenders haul ice, stock cases of liquor, take out trash and move kegs. "You can't be a wimp," says Charming.

  And, of course, everyone in the business has to make exceptional drinks, in a time of craft standards and shifting flavor stereotypes. Forty years after women staked their claim to bar stools, they're knocking back whiskey shots. "Gender differences in taste have definitely broken down," notes SoBou bartender Abigail Gullo.

  Charming's hotel bar often draws male convention-goers who drink alone, where "nobody will ever see them again," she says. "So they'll order a frozen daiquiri or pina colada, real frou-frou drinks."

  That same anonymity, coupled with booze, can make for outrageous behavior. Charming coached Conklin on how to deflect it, and empowers her entire staff by giving them a say in new hires and programming, and crediting them by name on the menu for their specialty drinks.

  While the bar as a workplace still has its issues, it trumped other careers for Gullo, who was initially drawn to theater and then teaching. "An actor is at the mercy of other people, especially during auditions, and while I loved teaching, it's a thankless job," she says. "Bartending has empowered me, financially and emotionally. It gives me more control in my life."

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