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From the NS archive: Women’s rights in restaurants

12 April 1930: The trouble at the present moment arises from the fact that in the bad old days good women did not go in sufficient numbers into public houses.

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In the 1930s, it was frowned upon for a woman to drink in a public house, particularly without the company of a man, and many restaurants would not admit women late in the evening. (It was not until 1982 that it was made illegal for pubs to refuse to serve women on the basis of their gender alone.) In this piece from 1930, the author, “YY”, explained that this etiquette came down to the difference between “good” women, and another type, with which public house proprietors would not want to be associated. The author, “though a convinced believer in woman's rights in the restaurant”, did not think it appropriate that women should pick up “down and out” men from the streets to accompany them inside, a fashion that, a protester suggested, “would reduce the thing to such an absurdity that something would have to be done about it”.

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It is impossible not to agree in principle with the agitation on behalf of the right of a woman to be served in a restaurant or public-house at any hour of the evening, even if she is not accompanied by a man, but it is not easy to get agitated about it. Obviously, now that women have made their way into the House of Commons, it is only a matter of time till they are also in the House of Lords, and, when once they are in the House of Lords, the public-house cannot reasonably remain closed to them. At the same time, I imagine, the present injustice to them in closing certain restaurants and bars to them at certain hours of the evening is theoretical rather than practical. If they cannot get into one restaurant or bar, there is usually a restaurant or bar a few yards away that will welcome them. No woman will starve in the West End of London at midnight as a result of finding all the doors of all the restaurants closed against her, merely because she is not respectable enough to be accompanied by a male of dubious character. Thus, there is none of the vice of prohibition in the present state of affairs.

Obviously the situation arose from the desire of restaurant proprietors and publicans to run one kind of establishment rather than another. When one sees the notice, "Ladies Not Admitted into this Bar," on the door of a public house, one knows that the proprietor is not inspired by any anti-feminist bias but that he wishes to keep his bar clear of the kind of ladies who would have mainly frequented it, if they had been permitted, in the days of Queen Victoria. His object is entirely commercial. He knows that there are men who prefer a bar in which they will find themselves in the company of men only, as there are men who prefer aclub from which women are excluded. To admit women would alter the atmosphere of his bar-room and attract a different kind of customer. There are equally obvious reasons for the display in other bars of the notice, "Ladies Unaccompanied by a Gentleman not Admitted." Ladies unaccompanied by gentlemen have frequently so transformed a bar-room as to bring the publican under the suspicion of the police. It is not that publicans are more virtuous than other men or more fundamentally respectable, but that they have to think of their licences.

Theoretically, there is no more reason why a solitary woman drinking a tonic water or even a gin and tonic water in a public-house should exercise a more baleful influence than a solitary woman drinking tea in a tea-shop; but practice did not always march with theory in generations less enlightened than our own. The trouble at the present moment, indeed, arises from the fact that in the bad old days good women did not go in sufficient numbers into public-houses. If good women had crowded into the public houses as they crowded into the churches in the 19th century, there would have been no suggestion that the woman who wanted to go into a public house was the very woman who must be kept out of a public house. Unfortunately good women did not exercise their rights in time; they would not face the sawdusty floors and the smell of stale beer and tobacco. This, at least, was true of the women of the upper and middle classes, who made it perfectly clear to their husbands that, if they frequented bars, they must frequent them alone. So little did they care for the right of women to enter a public house, indeed, that many of them would gladly have passed a law which would have prevented even a man from entering a public house.

And that is the situation at the present moment in the United States. It is, I think, much to be regretted that women did not long ago assert their equality with men as frequenters of bar-rooms. Not that I wish to see women drinking on the same scale as men, or indeed that I wish them to be anything but teetotallers. But it is impossible to believe that, if women had accompanied men into public houses, drinking tea or lemonade or whatever it pleased them to drink, the public house could have ever become such a dull drinking shop as it has for the most part become in England. I do not mean to suggest that it is dull to be in a public house at present; but, if it is not, it is not as a rule the publican who prevents it from being dull. One feels that a public house ought to be so cheerful a place that it would be a pleasure to go into it even alone, but in fact it is usually a haunt of such cheerlessness that a man, finding himself alone in it, feels as desperately solitary as he would in the middle of the Sahara.

It is true that the public house has improved to a considerable extent in the present century. It is cleaner than it used to be, and there are more chairs and tables. There is oftener food on the counter. But, despite all the improvements, cheerfulness has not broken in. The ham sandwiches and the horrible Welsh rabbits depress rather than exalt the spirits. There is no suggestion in the atmosphere of being able to sit down and take one's ease. Bottles are pleasant to look at and pleasant to taste, but that is all. If it were not for the presence of one's friends, one would as willingly be in a waiting-room in Harley Street. Bacchus deserved better temples after making his way to these shores.

In what way women could have given us better public houses, I am not sure. But there is no doubt that the French showed the way by creating a cafe that was fit for women and children. It is a pleasure even to sit down alone in a good French cafe. A seat at a table is any easy-chair from which one can survey the world at one's leisure. One is in easy-going surroundings in which it is possible to drink without haste and in which the drinker of strong waters and the teetotaller meet on equal terms. In England the teetotaller in the public house is half a stranger. To stand at a bar drinking mineral waters is not the gayest of occupations. Yet in France a cup of coffee or chocolate seems no unnatural beverage. This, I think, is largely due to the unhurried atmosphere of the cafe. The French are said to be a commercially minded people, but they do not betray this side of their nature to their customers. The ordinary English public house, however, has been designed to insure that a man can enjoy little comfort except in drinking. This, we may take it, will come to an end, now that women, instead of merely denouncing public-houses, claim to enter them as men's equals.

As for the right of women to be served in restaurants, whether they are accompanied by men or not, it has, of course, only to be asserted in order to be admitted. It must always have been a questionable assumption that it was only disreputable women who, without the presence of men to encourage them, could want a meal after 10 o'clock in the evening. And today it is an assumption that could only be made by a restaurant proprietor.

I confess I am myself no devotee of late suppers, and, if every restaurant in London closed its doors at 10 o'clock it would not trouble me. But there are others belonging to both sexes who have Jess Spartan tastes, and who have apparently an infinite capacity for feeling hungry. These, like cigarette smokers, should to my mind be permitted to assuage their pangs, whatever their sex, at any hour they please. It is possible that the spirit of DORA will one day mechanically close all the restaurants as it does the tobacconists' shop at 8 o'clock, and, indeed, it stands to reason that a human being can provide himself with plenty of food before eight as easily as he can provide himself with plenty of cigarettes. But, till both sexes are made to suffer, it is unfair that one sex should be made to suffer more than the other.

Meanwhile, it is to be hoped that women in their enthusiasm for the right to sup in solitude will proceed to no such lengths as Mrs Ayrton Gould suggested at the meeting of protest. Mrs Gould urged that women supporters of the movement should "pick up" at random "down and out" men in the street and take them as their guests into the restaurants, commonly described as palatial, the doors of which are at present closed to single women at supper-time. "That," she declared, "would reduce the thing to such an absurdity that something would have to be done about it."

I am afraid that Mrs Gould takes too idealistic a view of the chivalry of the male. There are many good men in the world with unshaven chins, but not every man with an unshaven chin is a good man. What is to happen if the feminist, battling nobly for her principle, finds the Weary Willie she has brought with her as an escort calling for the most expensive champagne? How is she to silence him if, looking down the menu, he bids the waiter bring him the most expensive dishes that catch his eye? She cannot very well have a public scene with him in the restaurant. If she refuses him caviar, he may begin smashing the crockery. And what if the champagne, when it does come, goes to his head? What if he begins to sing uproariously, and he and she are thrown out into the street for disorderly behaviour? There is no certainty even that they will not both be arrested and have to appear in the dock together on the following morning. It will be much safer for any woman who wishes to make the experiment, if instead of picking up a tramp at random, she persuades her husband or some male relation over whom she has a measure of control to disguise himself as a tramp, grow a beard for a day or two, and in this guise become her escort into the camp of the enemy.

Unfortunately, husbands and other male relations are not always willing to make the necessary sacrifices for a principle. I, myself, though a convinced believer in woman's rights in the restaurant, would shrink in the most cowardly fashion from any proposal that I should dress myself in rags, and, with a three days' growth of beard on my chin, accompany the noblest woman on earth into the blaze of a West End restaurant. One would get stared at, and not even the choicest dishes – no, nor Burgundy itself – could take the load of self-consciousness off one's spirits.

I do not think, however, that there is much danger of any such scheme being put into practice. Much as men would shrink into themselves before the august eyes of waiters and the cynical eyes of their ordinary fellow mortals if they marched down the middle of a fashionable restaurant in the rags of a tramp, most women would feel as ill at ease were they to appear in public with such an escort. They may be the braver sex, but few of them are brave enough for that. They, too, have their feelings as well as their principles. At the same time, it would not be safe for you, being a man, to challenge a woman of real principle to accept you as a tattered escort to a restaurant supper. She might take you at your word for the Jove of the cause. If she did, you would either be ignominiously thrown out, or you would live in history as the man who brought the restaurant proprietors to their knees and won the last campaign but one for the equality of the sexes. It might be worth it, or it might not.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)