Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Winnepeg Beach women-only beer parlour

Winnepeg Beach
Winnepeg Beach women-only beer parlor

Location: Lake Winnepeg, Province of Manitoba, Canada

Opened/Closed: Winnipeg Beach was open from 1902 to 1964; the women-only beer parlour was open for just a few hours in 1928 before being shut down by the authorities. During this same time period (1902-1964), male-only drinking establishments flourished and in fact were typically protected as male-only space by law.

Winnepeg Beach was a beachside amusement park, a self-styled "Coney Island of the West." In its heyday, it drew up to 40,000 visitors a day. And like New York's Coney Island, it served as both a center for leisure and (heterosexual) courtship.

Nevertheless, though the dance halls, promenades, and beaches were gender mixed --given that they were the proper domain of courting (heterosexual) couples--some spaces were strictly segregated and reserved for the men. One of these areas was the male-only bar or beer parlour. As historian Dale E. Barbour observes, public drinking establishments were exclusive male territory from the very beginning:

In the early years of Winnipeg Beach, the hotels would have offered a place for men to drink. The Empress Hotel, for example, was famous for its "lavish bar." Women were discouraged from taking place in this male-oriented drinking.

Barbour later concludes:

Clearly, alcohol was considered to be within the male domain and the men going to the hotels were engaged in male sociability. This public sociability was ended in 1916 when prohibition was enacted in Manitoba. The rules were relaxed in 1923 to allow for the sale of liquor in government run stores and then again in 1928 to allow public drinking in licensed male-only beer parlours. The male-only beer parlours, and Winnipeg Beach did have one on its Main Street after 1928, make clear that liquor regulations were a gendered affair, with regulations predicated on fears that mixing men, women and alcohol would lead to immoral behavior. It would not be until 1957 that mixed-gender public drinking establishments were allowed in Manitoba.

So there can be little doubt that beer parlours were male-only spaces--by both social custom and legal statute--for nearly 60 years. No girls allowed!

Except for a few short hours in 1928, when a remarkable act of resistance occurred:

In 1928, Winnipeg Beach was home to Manitoba's only women's beer parlour -- which lasted just a few hours before being closed down over licensing issues. The men's-only beer parlour operated into the early '60s.

I'm still looking for information on who organized this women's beer parlour, and what women chose to come in and make this their home for the few brief hours of its aborted existence.

This is the kind of history that people forget when comparing contemporary "men's bars" and "women's bars"--or even male and female public spaces in general. Public female spaces--especially women's drinking establishments--have never enjoyed the same legal, political, and social protections as the men's spaces; they've never even come close in a rough equivalence. That's one reason they continue to be vulnerable and easily destroyed. That's why those who pressure the miniscule number of women's bars (or clinics or shelters) to be more "diverse" or open to all comers typically have a complete ignorance of  (or indifference to) the actual historical record. Within the larger scheme of things, men's spaces have not been subject to the same pressures, and in many cases, were actually protected and sanctioned by the State. Given the monopolistic control that men have had on public space from the very beginning (whether "mixed" or male-only), it's perhaps not surprising that even the right to female-only public restrooms or locker rooms is increasingly under siege in some quarters, especially in Canada. When a couple of gals can't even hoist a few brews together for more than a single evening (before the heavy hand of state intrudes and shuts down the bar), we can certainly see why no women's space--not even a toilet stall--can be considered truly safe or beyond challenge in the male-dominated political realm.

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