Dora B. Montefiore, New Age January 1904

Women’s Interests

The barmaid problem


Source: New Age, p. 42-43, 21 January 1904;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.


A pamphlet bearing this title has been sent me by a friend. It is published by the “Joint Committee on the Employment of Barmaids,” but the names of the Joint Committee do not appear on the title page; it is evidently therefore, like the Tariff Commission, a more or less modest and self-effacing body. Neither does the pamphlet bear any signature, so it is possible that a large amount of joint wisdom and erudition are responsible for the English of the opening sentence: “The evils involved in the employment of women in drinking-bars has been increasingly recognised during the last twenty years.” The drift of the pamphlet is the education of public opinion on the subject of excluding young women from serving behind bars, either in theatres, railway stations, or public-houses. Now, as those who are interesting themselves exclusively with this question of excluding women from an occupation in which thousands earn a respectable and comparatively remunerative living, it behoves those who stand for equality of opportunity between men and women, and for treating women in industrial and social questions as responsible, adult human beings, to reply categorically to the case made out by the faddists and freaks who are perpetually straining at gnats and swallowing camels where women’s industrial and social conditions are concerned. Let me take, therefore, as a sample of what the combined wisdom of the Y.W.C.A., the C.E.T.S., and the Women’s Total Abstinence Union consider as an argument against the employment of barmaids as set forth in the pamphlet lying before me: “There is a story of an American, who, on being, asked what had most struck him in England, replied without hesitation ‘Barmaids.’ The anonymous pamphleteer, commenting on this story, remarks na´vely, “The judgment of the civilised world is against us.”

Half truths.

It has evidently never entered the mind of the writer of the pamphlet that a man finds what he sets out to seek whether it be evil or good. Is it believable that if Emerson, Henry James, or Edison had been asked what had most struck them in England they would have replied “Barmaids"? But this mythical American, who, if he ever existed, was an inveterate frequenter of bars and public-houses, where he drowned the divine spark of intelligence he might originally have possessed, is quoted as having made some profound remarks worthy to be cited as an argument against the employment of all barmaids. There is very good reason why in young and still unsettled countries, such as many of our Colonies and parts of the United States, only men have been employed in serving drink to customers. To begin with, women were scarcer and often impossible to obtain in any paid capacity. Then life and habits were rougher and wilder, so that it was necessary to have men behind the bar to keep order, and frequently to act as “chuckers out.” Thus it came about that women were more or less excluded from that particular employment, and, as in a new country there is not the over-pressure of competition in all employments open to women, such exclusion did not prove a hardship. Now in an old, thoroughly settled, and heavily populated country, the conditions of employment in this particular occupation are quite different. There is none of the rough-and-tumble of up-country and of township life. The employment of women in bars has been a tradition of generations; the general management and the general tone of respectably conducted public-houses have improved enormously during the last twenty years, and in many indirect ways (such as the starting of tea-rooms in connection, the selling of hot Bovril and of temperance drinks) they are continuing to improve. As for the women serving at refreshment bars and in theatres, their conditions are apparent to any of the public who are not in the habit of frequenting public-house bars, but who may require to be served with a cup of tea, a glass of wine, or a penny bun. Their hours may be long, as are also those of the domestic servant but those are questions for legislation, not for exclusion. Then appearance denotes that the occupation is not the unhealthy one that total abstainers declare it to be; and their moral temptations are evidently not so great as are those of the girl or woman who is forced by the iron law of a sweated wage to supplement insufficient earnings by moral degradation.

Where real reform is needed.

Let it be clearly understood, I know only too well the evils caused by the drink traffic as it is carried on at present in the interests of the Beerocracy and their satellites; but those evils will not be diminished by making scapegoats of the politically unrepresented barmaid. It is for temperance I stand; temperance and reasonableness on the whole question, not total abstinence, nor total abolition. Reform, yes, domestic reform is needed; but it will have to be on the lines of “The People’s Refreshment House Association,” such as “The Waterman’s Arms” opened this week, on the south side of the river. A workman’s dining-hall is one of the main features of the building, the manager receives no commission on the sale of intoxicants; while a fair percentage of the profits on all food sales is paid to him, and good cheap square meals are supplied at astonishingly low prices. There is no more reason why a woman should not serve the clerks, workmen, and waterside labourers who are the customers at the Waterman’s Arms than the customers at Lockhart’s Cocoa Shops. The quantity of intoxicating drink sold will not be diminished by employing barmcn in the place of barmaids, and it is not by hitting these defenceless women that the overwhelming power of the brewer will be crippled. There is work, and strenuous work to be done in undermining the power of the brewer in the House of Commons, but the overthrow of that power will be accomplished by the straight well-aimed blows of the people themselves awakening to the consciousness of their own moral power, and not by the pin-pricks of narrow-minded and purblind faddists.

DORA B. MONTEFIORE.