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How a Topless Bar Helped End California’s Ban on Women Bartending

The state of California maintains a reputation for being a leader in legal progressiveness. This is not always viewed as flattery; a chunk of the country’s population will use this distinction to justify their belief that the Golden State will always be the land of fruits and nuts. (My rebuttal as a Californian: whatever). Regardless of your opinion of the coastal behemoth, the state’s standing for approving innovative laws that aim to reform and improve is a strong if not essential part of its  persona. But as forward-thinking as California can be, instances of regressive laws pepper its historical ledger. This is certainly true when it comes to laws concerning drinking. This isn’t surprising, of course — every state has booze-related legal skeletons in its closet, including ones that still have life in their bones. Yet one mandate particularly stands out in its preposterousness: From 1947 to 1971, the Golden State prohibited women from bartending.

The since-stricken law still generates shock value, and not because it was an isolated incident; other states and cities had similar bans during that time frame. But this is California we’re talking about. This backwards law seems incomprehensible given the state’s legal leanings, especially from a contemporary viewpoint. It’s also notable that we’re only 52 years removed from the ban’s lifting: Just a year after the Beatles broke up and a year before the Watergate break-in isn’t exactly ancient history. The third prong of this misogynistic trident? According to Janette Hunt, author of the 2016 book “Drink Like a Woman,” California was the last state in the union to lift this kind of embargo.

These factors make the ban fascinating, but the process of overturning it is equally remarkable. This is mainly due to the story’s main players: the California Supreme Court, a savvy feminist clerk, and a bar whose legal name hid a dirty little secret.

The Beginning

The ban on women tending bar wasn’t some weird, archaic remnant from Prohibition’s repeal. It’s actually far more insulting. In the years directly following the 21st Amendment’s passing, not all bars allowed women to patronize their venues, and those that did rarely hired female barkeeps. This changed during World War II: Women stepped up and filled in behind the stick for the men who left to fight overseas, which earned them the collective nickname Bessie the Bartender in the process. When the boys came back, however, the women were unceremoniously 86’d for reasons that read today as gross displays of misogyny: Bartending was a man’s job; women weren’t emotionally suited for bartending; being around liquor could turn them into immoral, boozy floozies.

This movement came to a head between 1945 and 1948. On May 1, 1945, three months before World War II officially ended, Michigan enacted a law banning women from bartending unless they owned the bar or were married to the bar owner. A group of women led by Michigan bar owner Valentine Goesaert filed a lawsuit against the statute in 1947, and the case, Goesaert v. Cleary, made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court one year later. The lawsuit was struck down by a 6–3 vote. If a state wanted to ban women behind the stick, the feds weren’t going to interfere.

California issued a similar law with the same parameters as Michigan’s in 1947. While Michigan came to its senses and overturned the law in 1955, California let its ban linger until the early 1970s, when the state was hit with a lawsuit of its own.

The Unlikely Hero

The official name of the lawsuit seeking to overturn California’s ban on women bartenders was Sail’er Inn, Inc. v. Kirby. This title makes it sound like an establishment called Sail’er Inn filed suit, which may conjure up images of a hotel with nautical-themed rooms or a lobby festooned with pirate ephemera. While Sail’er Inn technically was the plaintiff, its name on the paperwork was simply the corporate name registered with California. Its DBA (a.k.a. doing business as) name was The Classic Cat. It was not a hotel.

The Classic Cat was a West Hollywood topless bar that opened in 1965. It quickly earned a reputation as a celebrity hangout, attracting the likes of Jim Morrison, Dick Van Dyke, Charlton Heston, and Adam West. It wasn’t just a boy’s club, either — Lana Turner also popped in on occasion. Its logo featured a tuxedoed tiger with a nondescript bottle of booze in one hand and a presumably doffed bra in the other.

There were two reasons why The Classic Cat became the unlikely genesis of an important piece of equality-driven legislation: money and survival. After the space opened, owner Alan Wells decided that he could generate a better profit if the performers made drinks topless after they finished their routines. This attracted the “in” crowd and famous folks, but it also attracted the attention of Edward Kirby, the director of California’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC). As an official determined to clean up any signs of lewdness in the state’s bar scene, he naturally found The Classic Cat’s topless bartender policy scandalous, and used the state ban on women bartenders to shut down the bar. Fearing a potential loss of business, Wells filed suit to remove Kirby’s legal restraint.

Because The Classic Cat’s business model involved semi-naked dancers serving drinks, the California Supreme Court was prepared to toss the case into oblivion. That was before Wendy Webster Williams, a feminist clerk new to the state’s highest court, got involved. Instead of seeing the case as some sleazy establishment trying to save its assets, she recognized it as an opportunity to jettison a law that unjustly blocked gender equality. She successfully persuaded the court to hear her case. She also recognized that the case initially filed by The Sail’er Inn made lousy arguments, so she assembled a team of female law students and a female law professor to write an amicus brief that vastly improved their arguments. The Sail’er Inn’s lawyers used the brief to successfully argue that the female bartender ban was a direct violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which specifically barred discrimination based on sex, race, color, religion, and national origin. Upon hearing the case, the Supreme Court struck the ban down, calling the mandate “repugnant” in a statement that was partially written by Williams herself. The court’s lifting of the ban didn’t come without a catch: It took away Wells’s gimmick by adding a provision banning women from tending bar topless — a tiny sacrifice for the greater good.

The Aftermath

California nixing its female bartending ban was a watershed moment for the hospitality industry. In 1971, roughly 21 percent of American bartenders were women. By the end of the decade, this percentage more than doubled to 44 percent. Today, it’s estimated that some 60 percent of those tending bar are women. Some may argue that this growth is a case of correlation implying causation, particularly since the 1970s was such a paradigm-shifting decade for women’s rights. On the other hand, roughly 20 million people lived in California in 1971, and that number is near 40 million today. It’s likely that the state played a significant role in boosting that percentage on its own.

Williams went on to do significant work in gender and law throughout her career. She was instrumental in drafting the seminal Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, which prohibited businesses of 15 or more employees from discriminating against women due to pregnancy or other pregnancy or childbirth-related conditions. She also became good friends with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg during her career.

The Classic Cat shuttered sometime in the late 1970s. It was reborn in March 2020, right as the world was thrust into Covid hell. It stands next door to its original location, which is now a Chase Bank. 2.0’s interior is relentlessly modern and bright, and everyone working there keeps their shirts on, but they don’t shy away from their past shenanigans — their website features a quote from now-defunct blog The Great Hollywood Hangover that boasts the bar was “the largest, most luxurious topless club of them all.”

One thing is missing from the website, though. It makes no reference to The Classic Cat’s role in making it legal for California women to bartend. If you visit the venue but don’t know about its place in history, the restaurant is just a pretty supper club in WeHo that was resurrected from its swinging-’60s heyday. But if you do know, it’s so much more. It’s a symbol of a time when California, a state so known for pushing innovative laws forward, once held long and fast to a statute that was abhorrently backward.

*Image retrieved from Jacob Lund – stock.adobe.com

The article How a Topless Bar Helped End California’s Ban on Women Bartending appeared first on VinePair.

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