When I met Mallory O’Meara briefly a couple of years ago, she’d just published her first book. The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick details the life and work of one of Disney’s first woman animators, a woman who also created one of Hollywood’s classic movie monsters. O’Meara was deep into research for her next book at the time, so I’ve been eagerly awaiting this new book for two years. Alcoholic beverages, feminism, and history—Girly Drinks: A World History of Women and Alcohol hit all the right notes for me before I’d cracked its cover.
In Girly Drinks, O’Meara takes readers along on a deep dive into the history of alcohol and drinking. Her mission is to answer the question, “Who decided that drinking was a gendered act?” She investigates the hows and whys behind bars becoming masculine spaces and alcohol becoming the province of men. Why were sweeter, frothier concoctions created in the first place? And how did they become known as “girly drinks”? O’Meara answers these questions and many more in a book with broad, gender-neutral appeal.
With The Lady from the Black Lagoon, O’Meara restores one woman’s lost history. With Girly Drinks, she is even more ambitious—she restores the lost histories of countless women over ten thousand years. She offers not only a well-researched, lay history of women’s involvement in the discovery, creation, production, and distribution of alcoholic beverages, but the science behind these beverages and a complete, worldwide history of the evolution of drinks and drinking from the beginning of civilization. But you won’t have to be a scientist, a historian, or a woman to enjoy this book—Girly Drinks is written in an engaging, conversational, inclusive, and often humorous tone that makes it fun to read as well as informative.
O’Meara examines the history of women and alcohol through the stories of fifteen women, including Cleopatra in Egypt, Li Qingzhao in China, Mary Frith in England, Barbe-Nicole Cliquot in France, and Ada Coleman, a celebrated bartender and mixologist who, in early twentieth century America, helped to make cocktails an art form. One of the things that makes O’Meara’s book so enjoyable and also more impactful is the way she sets up each woman’s story by first orienting readers in time and place and situating us within the context of the era in which each woman lived. This background allows readers to experience how truly badass and courageous these women were to be doing the things they were doing, often going against the grain, defying social expectations, or breaking laws designed to exclude women.
O’Meara’s extensive research uncovers the involvement of women in brewing beer, distilling spirits, and selling alcoholic beverages from before recorded time, when “[g]endered disapproval of drunkenness did not yet exist.” She traces “the idea that women are the property of men” back to a several-thousand-years-old foundational justice system and uncovers the many manmade myths that discouraged women from drinking throughout history, e.g., that sake had a feminine spirit that became jealous if women were around it.
This history of gendering alcohol includes berating or demeaning women to compartmentalize their drinking, a practice which, O’Meara points out, continues today:
“It’s commonplace today to make fun of women-centric book clubs, where there’s more wine drinking than book discussion. But for hundreds of years, the only place women could gather, drink, relax and socialize was in a neighbor’s kitchen, surrounded by other wives and mothers. There is a long-standing tradition of driving women to some sort of behavior, then mocking them for it. (Sort of like making beauty a woman’s most powerful and important currency, then laughing about how long it takes her to get ready.) In colonial America men drank everywhere. At home, in court, even in church. Men almost always controlled the taverns. The only place a woman controlled was her kitchen. So while women were banned from public drinking, they still had a drinking culture. It was a private one, but it was robust.”
O’Meara does an excellent job of establishing that “[t]he double standard that drinking women fare is deeply rooted in male anxieties about control and their fear of women acting like people, not property.” She also explores the ways in which societal and legislative rules around drinking are not only misogynistic, but are motivated by racism and homophobia and target the poor, as well as the ways drinking spaces are spaces intended for men.
A woman walks into a bar.
That’s it. That’s the joke.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a woman who walks into a bar, must be in want of a one-night stand. Men go to bars for any number of reasons—to relax and unwind, to watch a ball game, to shoot pool or play darts, to conduct business, to enjoy laughter and conversation, to hang out with friends, to be in the company of other human beings without necessarily being in the company of other human beings. To get hammered. But when a woman walks into a bar, whether alone or with a group of friends, it means something. When it comes to women, O’Meara observes, drinking and sex are intertwined. Discussing the history of men “treating” women to drinks, O’Meara notes that “[t]the legacy of social pressure and expectation caused by treating is still felt by women in bars today. Getting a free drink is always nice, of course. But to take the pressure off and clear the air of any expectations, it might be a better idea, as Liz Lemon says, to buy a woman some mozzarella sticks instead.” And, O’Meara points out, the gendering of bars means women are sometimes excluded or risk their reputations. For example, when it comes to business, they may not have the same opportunities to network.
Girly Drinks is well-researched and covers a lot of ground. O’Meara follows through, all the way to the present-day insults and injuries endured by marginalized populations, including trans women and the disabled. In the early chapters of the book, O’Meara is sometimes forced to extrapolate or to draw conclusions from the information available. This makes sense. As Virginia Woolf pointed out nearly one hundred years ago, women are largely missing from the history books. We don’t know a lot about ordinary women’s lives—unless a woman was a queen or was notorious in some way, her history didn’t get written. Records about ordinary women were sparse, let alone records about poor women brewing beer to survive. O’Meara herself acknowledges that “so many names and stories have been lost to time.” With Girly Drinks, O’Meara rights a wrong—she fills in crucial gaps in the history not only of women, but of beverages which are a significant part of the world’s culture. She restores women to their place alongside men in an important history and corrects misattributions (e.g., that a man invented the still or popularized champagne).
Most importantly, O’Meara shines a light on long-held ideas and practices designed to exclude women from a male-dominated arena. Beliefs so deeply engrained we don’t question them. I, for one, can’t wait for the next time I order a dark, oatmeal stout and the man behind the bar congratulates me for having the audacity to drink such a strong, masculine beverage–it happens. I wonder what his response will be when I ask him where he got the idea dark beer is man beer. I’m guessing it’s something he’s never considered.
Girly Drinks: A World History of Women and Alcohol by Mallory O’Meara was published on October 19, 2021, by Hanover Square Press.