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Barmaids: A History of Women's Work in Pubs.

Barmaids: A History of Women's Work in Pubs. By Diane Kirkby (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. xii plus 244pp. $64.95/cloth $24.95/paperback).

Barmaids: A History of Women's Work in Pubs, fills an important gap in the economic and cultural history of Australia. In her history of women pub workers in Australia, Diane Kirkby argues that pubs have provided a sense of national identity. Unfortunately, this national identity is synonymous with the image of the Australian white male. She notes that, "Masculinity and national identity were ... interwoven with pub culture and the ethnic and sexual exclusivity of that culture was celebrated." As a result of the weaving together of pub culture, masculinity, and national identity, the vast contributions of women who worked in pubs have been erased from the national consciousness. They have been recognized only insofar as they have served as objects of male patrons' sexual desires. It is Diane Kirkby's goal to bring the history of these women, the barmaids, to light.

Kirkby divides her book into two sections. She begins by providing a history of pubs and drinking culture in nineteenth-century Australia. She argues that pubkeeping played a central role in the colonization of that country. Many times public houses were the first erected structures around which frontier towns grew. They served as the local inn, mail drop, gathering spot, and sometimes store. Kirkby also demonstrates how the pub became distinctly Australian in the nineteenth century. Licensing laws, particularly in the early nineteenth century, forced those seeking a spirits license to also get a beer license, and to provide accommodations. These laws set Australian pubs apart from their models, the drinking establishments in England, where each business had a specific and legally limited role to sell either beer or spirits. The final development that solidified the identity of the modern Australian pub was the introduction of the bar counter in the early nineteenth century. Customers began to sit apart from the publicans, or pub owners. The atmosphere became commercial rather than homey. And the pub became a distinctly public, Australian establishment.

The history of the pub's development in the nineteenth century furnishes the backdrop for the untold story of women's involvement in them. Pubs provided income for many women. Because widowhood and wife desertion were common in nineteenth-century Australia, women had to explore many options to provide for their families, especially on the frontier. Pubkeeping provided jobs not only for widows and the deserted, but also for many female ex-convicts. A fairly lucrative endeavor, pubkeeping was a welcomed option for many women. Just as the nineteenth century witnessed the development of the pub, it also witnessed the development of women's roles in the pub. The role of barmaid, as evidenced in the widespread use of the term, came about around mid-century. It is the creation of this occupation that Kirkby analyzes in the second section of her book.

In the second part, Kirkby begins to show how the history of barmaids informs Australian labor and gender history. Barmaids, like other working women, fought for equal pay and respect. Unlike other working women, however, barmaids suffered from a stigma attached to their line of work. During the years from roughly the 1880s to the 1920s, prohibition activists created the image of an evil, loose barmaid who lured men into pubs to drink and squander their money. Barmaids, many of whom prided themselves on their ability to pour, chat, and keep a clean bar simultaneously, deeply resented this characterization by prohibitionists, yet the stereotype stuck. Even though many women loved their jobs because it offered more money and more freedom than the usual female occupation of household domestic, they remained the object of scorn by proper society.

Prohibition efforts around the turn of the century also led to the passage of various bills. One of the most important laws, which lasted until 1953, mandated the closure of all bars in Australia at six p.m. The early closing laws turned the hour between five and six p.m. into a hectic post-workday drinking frenzy that left barmaids exhausted and turned customers out into the streets completely inebriated from drinking several rounds of beer in rapid succession.

Even though the occupation of barmaid was tainted by temperance stereotypes, barmaids, like other working women in the twentieth century, joined unions to fight for better working conditions and particularly for higher pay--pay commensurate with that of male bar staff. Barmaids joined the male-dominated Liquor Trades Union, which offered them better protection than the alternative, the hotel workers union. Their efforts within the union finally paid off in 1968 when they won federally mandated equal pay to men's.

In conjunction with changes in labor laws, the loosening of many of the restrictive drinking laws that had been enacted by temperance activism resulted in enormous changes in pubs. In the past forty years, barmaids have been exposed to topless bars, and even to totally nude dancing in some pubs. In addition, a tremendous expansion in the number of pubs, as well as the introduction of female customers into pubs, altered the nature of pub culture. Regardless of these changes, the job remains a popular way for many women to make a livable wage in Australia.

In telling her story, which spans from colonization to the present day, Kirkby skillfully employs several sources. Her analysis of modern legal materials particularly succeeds in explaining how legislation has shaped not only leisure but also wider cultural practices. Kirkby's reconstruction of the nineteenth century, however, is hindered by a lack of sources. To remedy this problem, Kirkby uses photographs as evidence. While her cultural interpretation of these photos, all of which are reproduced in the book, is engaging, she does not go as far as she might in weaving them into her overall argument.

Kirkby successfully examines the meaning of work for the women themselves, as well as the meaning of that work for Australian society. She convincingly argues that gender plays an important role in determining wages and job opportunities for women in pubs. Yet, while Kirkby sheds light on the role of women, work, and alcohol, she leaves the reader with questions about the cultural implications of the story. She does not fully explore two central questions raised by her early statement that Australian national identity narrowly included only white men. First, since women helped create the pub culture that shaped national identity, what was at stake in the creation of that identity, and indeed of an Australian history, that erased these women? Second, what were the historical mechanisms that elevated pub culture to such a central a place in Australian national identity in the first place? Exploration of these questions would illuminate why the history of barmaids is so important to understanding the gendered n ature of Australian history itself.

Even though some questions are left unanswered, Kirkby offers a splendidly told history of a crucial aspect of Australia's development. And it is a welcome addition to a growing literature on the history of the sexualization of women's labor in certain industries--particular those surrounding alcohol.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Hames, Gina
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2000
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