Everyone knows about Rosie the Riveter, assembling bombers at Willow Run. But most people don’t know about Bessie the Bartender, the nickname for the revolutionary women who stepped behind the bar to keep the liquor flowing throughout World War II.
After the war, male bartenders wanted their jobs back. Lobbying politicians, they made arguments like, “Who wants the hand that rocks the cradle mixing whiskey sours?” Throughout the country, they succeeded in passing laws that made it illegal for a woman who wasn’t the wife or daughter of an innkeeper to tend the bar. Michigan passed such a law in 1945.
In 1947, Dearborn bar owner Valentine Goesaert and three other women challenged the statute as unconstitutional, taking their case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1948. The country wasn’t ready for equal rights, and they lost. Michigan didn’t allow women behind the bar until 1955. In other states, bans on female bartenders lasted into the 1970s. Today, women make up around 50 percent of the bartending workforce, bringing their creativity and commitment to customer service with them.
The pandemic has driven women out of the labor force. With the bars and restaurants hit hard, female bartenders have been hit especially hard. Take Tara Jagodzinski, a 12-year bartending veteran who, up until last spring, had most recently been the beverage director at The Detroit Club. With no reopening date yet set, Jagodzinski found herself out of work. Now she works as a consultant, helping bars enhance their cocktail programs, and has launched her own virtual cocktail classes. Jagodzinski says her favorite drinks to make are creative, well balanced, and different. “I am the first person to jump at using off-the-wall ingredients,” she says. “Mushroom, cauliflower, miso — Asian flavors are naturally something I gravitate toward and my most creative comfort zone. I like getting people to try flavor combinations they never thought they would see in a cocktail. I love to push the envelope.”
Cory Clavet started bartending on the side while pursuing journalism in Washington, D.C., but decided to turn it into a full-time career. Now, she works at Second Best in Detroit. Like other female bartenders, she has faced challenges related to her gender. But the industry is changing. “It has definitely been up and down with having to overcome negative stereotypes,” Clavet says. “While it has been a journey, I definitely have come out stronger, and seeing others in my industry band together to make our work environments healthy has been extremely inspiring.”
Shelby Minnix, bartender and manager at The Sugar House in Detroit, is a bourbon fanatic who loves the science, craft, and art of cocktails. She has been very active in raising the profile of women in the industry. In 2018, she was selected as a regional finalist for the prestigious Diageo World Class cocktail competition. In 2019, she teamed up with fellow female bartenders in Detroit to train for Speed Rack, an all-women bartending competition and breast cancer fundraiser where women fight it out in a battle of skill, speed, and cocktail knowledge.
Minnix can’t wait to get back behind the bar and reconnect with her customers. “You could call them regulars, but they’ve truly become friends,” she says. “I really miss my friends that would come to the bar weekly. You get to know a lot about people’s lives in this industry, and they become a regular part of your day-to-day life. The shutdown felt like a terrible breakup.”
Detroit’s bars are not yet operating at full capacity. But with vaccinations beginning, customers and bartenders alike are looking forward to reuniting soon over a good drink. Maybe even a whiskey sour.
Tammy Coxen is chief tasting officer of Tammy’s Tastings, offering online classes for cocktail connoisseurs.