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Today in Herstory: Men-Only Bar Forced to Open Its Doors to Women

Founding Feminists is FMF’s daily herstory column.

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June 25, 1970: A major victory today for equal access thanks to the National Organization for Women!

A year and a day after N.O.W. activists Faith Seidenberg and Karen DeCrow filed a Federal lawsuit against McSorley’s Old Ale House in Manhattan over its policy of banning women, a judge has ruled that the bar’s 116-year “tradition” of discrimination must end.

In issuing his ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Walter Mansfield noted that he had considered the plea of the bar owner’s attorneys:

It may be argued that the occasional preference of men for a haven in which they may retreat from the watchful eye of wives or womanhood in general, to have a drink or pass a few hours in their own company, is justification enough; that the simple fact that women are not men justifies the defendant’s practices.

 Faith Seidenberg
Faith Seidenberg

But after acknowledging the argument, he ruled that it was not persuasive:

McSorley’s is a public place, not a private club, and … the preference of certain of its patrons … bear no rational relationship to the suitability of women as customers. Outdated images of bars as dens of coarseness and iniquity, and of women as particularly delicate and impressionable creatures in need of protection from the rough and tumble of unvarnished humanity will no longer justify sexual separatism. Without suggesting that chivalry is dead, we no longer hold to Shakespeare’s immortal phrase, ‘Frailty, thy name is woman.’

The judge then praised the plaintiffs for “wisely choosing to stage this battle of the sexes in a courthouse rather than resort to militant tactics.”

The two Syracuse women who filed the suit expressed great satisfaction at the result. Attorney Seidenberg said: “I’m ecstatic,” and announced that her next target would be a second protest at the Rainbow Lounge of the Hotel Syracuse, where unescorted women are still barred. Law student DeCrow said the decision was “proof that the women’s revolution is indeed being won in the 70s.”

The bar owner feels differently, of course, and intends to dig in his 19th Century heels while being dragged into the 20th Century. When a woman tried to enter a few hours after the ruling, she was told by the owner’s son that “we don’t serve women,” and that “it will stay that way until all possible appeals are lost” and even then “until all necessary facilities are installed.”

The bar obviously has no women’s restroom, but Judge Mansfield suggested that providing one should not be a problem, or an excuse to postpone compliance. Therefore, if all appeals by the bar owner are rejected or lost, there should be no great delay in women being able to tread on the bar’s sawdust floor, enjoy McSorley’s 35-cent glasses of ale and two-for-50-cent beers with their popular Liederkranz and onion sandwiches, and warm themselves next to its pot-bellied stove by the time the weather turns cool this Autumn.


 

UPDATE: After Mayor Lindsay signed a New York City law prohibiting discrimination in public places on account of sex, McSorley’s finally realized it would be fighting too many battles on too many fronts, and couldn’t win, so on August 10, 1970, the bar began admitting women. Things didn’t go smoothly on that first day, however. Many of the male patrons were as unhappy with the change in policy as the bar owner, and someone poured a stein of beer over N.O.W. activist Lucy Komisar’s head. But soon things settled down, and many of today’s patrons are probably unaware that women were ever prohibited, or that there was such a fight over it.

Inflationary Note: 35 cents then = $2.15 now; 50 cents = $3.06.

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