Drinking Together-What’s the History?

With the festive party season upon us, pubs and bars across the country will play host to groups of friends or work colleagues of both sexes who will drink together and look forward to their Christmas break. But what is the historical context of such drinking across the sexes both at Christmas and throughout the year?

On the cusp of 2018 it would not be acceptable to challenge a woman’s right to drink or sit at a bar alone, or to draw negative or derogatory conclusions about her character from her doing so. It is hard to imagine the male only bars of the last century, with a self- imposed controlling agenda that excluded women, and which labelled those who did frequent pubs and drank to excess as promiscuous and to be avoided. Ironically at the same time men saw similar behaviour in themselves as evidence of good fellowship and justified camaraderie.

Are we really looking at the end of a long line of female exclusion from bars or pubs, and the negative judgments made upon those who choose to defy such disapproval? Is this really a recent innovation, or were pubs or “alehouses” more open to women in previous centuries?

Always with more to lose by stepping over the doorstep of an alehouse, women were very aware that there were few circumstances when it would be deemed acceptable, and that there was a very fine line between what was and reputation assassination. Men could be there whatever, whereas women, constrained by their marital status, could be there perhaps if travelling with their husband or family, and if they were attending a betrothal or christening meal.

On closer examination though life was not so simple; with more blurring of these lines and a much more “equal” presence in ale houses than would be expected. There were plenty of alehouses too: in 1577 there were 720 alehouses and 132 inns recorded in Middlesex, which was one ale house for every 76 people, and by 1610 one in four houses in London “suburbs” were alehouses with 200 inns and 6000 alehouses in London alone by the 1730s.

Women had to visit alehouses for victuals and for ale if they could not brew at home, and just as now the alehouses were a place of work for many women. Women also visited as friends and neighbours, not just as guests. These legitimate reasons did not always protect their reputation, as there was an accepted blanket interpretation of “whoredom” for their presence in an alehouse for whatever reason.

From the late sixteenth century until the early eighteenth, the period highlighted by the numbers of inns and alehouses, there was a victim blaming culture when it came to the treatment of women in pubs. It was bolstered by the male camaraderie and drink induced violence built up in alehouses that supported patriarchy and dictated behaviour, so although there were no such categories for men, women were chaste when sober and whores when drunk. Women were both vulnerable to male sexual advances with its accompanying possibility of an unwanted pregnancy, and blamed for men making those advances, especially if they had behaved “immorally” by drinking to excess.

Culture and systems provided the frame work that appeared to justify such behaviour. Ballads celebrated women’s place in a sober and virtuous home, while at the same time extolling the alehouse as a liberating space away from it. Patriarchal moralists and magistrates anxious to control the threat they saw to families from the alehouses dealt with women accordingly whatever their reason for being there.

But women still went to the alehouses and inns regardless of public censure because of alcohol’s numbing effect, which provided a temporary relief from the drudgery of everyday life. They were warm and welcoming places that provided social interaction for lonely women. Many servants desperate to keep warm away from their freezing attic rooms were dismissed by their employers when found in alehouses. Legal records reveal a hostility to female drinkers, but these women were determined often funding their alcoholism by selling tobacco or theft.

It seems that the location of an alehouse or inn often determined the treatment women received when entering it. In London women visited alehouses alone or in mixed groups using the private rooms and did not jeopardise their reputations. Also in the capital women were more likely to be empowered by working outside the home, and would drink in groups creating a camaraderie mirroring that of the men. This strength in numbers could prevent unwanted sexual advances and violence. Women were known to win their arguments, and often with the support of other men in the alehouse. Women such as the London fishwives were often formidable drinkers too suggesting their acceptance may also have been linked to their monetary value.

It seems that women have always had a presence in inns or alehouses, but it is often on terms set down by men and unfavourable to them. It also appears that women drank then for the social interaction and as a break from work just as they do now. They were vulnerable as women are now, although it is to be hoped that public opinion and institutions have moved on from the hostility of the seventeenth and eighteenth century when women were judged uniformly as whores when drinking in pubs.

This Christmas no one will challenge a woman’s right to be in a pub, although her behaviour may still be judged. The end of the line has been reached about women’s acceptance within pubs, but just like their predecessors they are still judged for how they behave on their sex alone.

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