One Saturday night, my friends and I were leaving our local to go downtown for a drink. One lad said that he wasn’t going in, that he didn’t feel like it. None of us ever felt like it; however, the ritual and peer pressure locked us in. It was a few weeks later we found out that he had held back to chat with the ‘barmaid’, who he then began going out with, and now some twenty or more years later, is happily married with. I look back at that now and think of how we never really thought of the barkeep, whether man or woman, as anything more than the server of beer. You were polite to them because we were brought up properly, would have a bit of a chat or banter, but that was it. I can’t remember seeing them outside of the pub.
The stereotypical image of the barmaid, as opposed to the barman, is either one of the medieval wench bringing ‘more mead’, or the post WW2 busty sort the gaffer employed to make sure the punters drank more than they should (just Google barmaid images to see). And she is still identified as ‘barmaid’ today by many in the media, particularly in stories of their murder.
The history of the barmaid has been one of political controversy and social subjugation. In the early 20th century prominent politicians such as Ramsay MacDonald were part of the ‘abolish barmaids’ movement. This was not out of any concern for women’s rights rather a puritanical view that a bar was not the place for a woman and they were taking away the position for the male to fulfil his head-of-the-household role. They were defeated however in Parliament.
Daniel Sluman’s poem The Barmaid, tells of the way in which a woman is viewed by men across the bar and how the years have taken their toll through the perspective of the customer. Daniel’s poem at first appears as a casual encounter with the man admiring the way in which she gets his drink: “The Barmaid/pours a shot of vodka/to the bottom of an iced glass,/turns, silver nails coaxing/Sambuca & Jack from the air.” But things develop and her history is shown the next day: “Her face is a fracture of angles/under the morning’s thud of light;/her cheek pockmarked from three years/of bastards.” He is part of that history now but he leaves “to the first pigeons exhaling/into flight.” It is clear however, that she will be behind the bar again that evening. (more…)