Harriet Leigh: Successful women in bars ain’t new

Story by Harriet Leigh
Harriet Leigh is the venue manager at Archie Rose in Sydney, and has worked the bar for 18 years — you don’t want to mess with her.

Lately in my career I keep getting asked the same question. Why aren’t there more successful women in hospitality? I think that question is a non sequitur.

There are so many women in hospitality who are formidable that I find it disingenuous. In 18 years I’ve worked alongside many women and they have all been, without exception, redoubtable. There may not be that many taking out big comps but women own and manage bars, restaurants, distribution companies, wineries, breweries and distilleries. I want to use this space to debunk the question and argue women succeeding in hospitality is historical, widespread and continuing. It’s not women working that’s new, it’s society’s attitude to them that fluctuates.

The first person who employed me was a terrifying 4-foot-nothing publican who had her mostly male clientele quaking in their boots in the blink of an eye. She taught me how to break up a fight, how to cut off a man my grandfather’s age and how to yield a confidence I didn’t know I had. This may be one of the reasons there are fewer women than men in the bar world. There are lots of women who don’t feel comfortable batting off the unwanted advances of a drunken letch (I’m not saying the rest relish it but some demolish the opposition with the ferocity of an All Black). Many can’t be bothered to deal with the machismo and condescension some people feel are good tools to intimidate their colleagues. A boss of mine once got his cock out, in full view of 200 customers to enquire if I was sure I was a lesbian (correct answer: stare at the offending member and say “I am now”). For some, like their male counterparts, they don’t like the late nights and physical labour.

History is a story easily forgotten if it isn’t retold. Australia has a long history of female publicans. Before 1820, 20% of licenses were issued to women. By 1906 in Melbourne women held 55% of licenses (a figure that grew to an incredible 68% in South Melbourne). Many people know that New Zealand was the first country to allow women’s suffrage in 1893. However few know that propertied women in South Australia could vote in 1861. The pub was the center of many communities, women owned them and enjoyed the power associated with that. Women were, as history frequently shows them to be, robust.


At the turn of the last century a slew of laws changed the way women could own businesses, particularly holding liquor licenses. In Tasmania by 1902 married women and those under 45 were all barred from holding a license. In South Australia, ¼ of the 700 hotel licenses were held by women, many of whom found themselves without a livelihood when the Licensing Act forbidding single women from holding licenses was introduced in 1908. By 1912 in NSW no single woman could apply for a license.

The national conversation on women and alcohol was changing. Women working, and amassing reasonable fortunes was becoming a threat to men’s incomes. Alcohol was becoming a threat to families according to pious Christians. The arrival of WW1 brought the excuse the Temperance League was seeking. Australia’s answer to prohibition – reduced trading hours – was born. And like other controls (*cough* Lockout) instead of fixing the problem it created new issues. The drinking binge of the Swill saw a rise in violence and drunken disorderly behavior anyone living in Newtown today is familiar with. Women were stripped of their power and suffered more violence, just as in other parts of the western world they were gaining suffrage and land rights. Here we were being curtailed. Before the 6 o’clock Swill the pub was a domestic environment. After our prohibition many of the feminine touches enjoyed in pubs, such as tables and chairs, were removed so men could quite literally strap themselves in for a couple of hours of serious drinking.

My old boss Doris Goddard, of Hotel Hollywood fame was one of the first publicans in the 1960s to let women in the front bar. At the time pubs featured public bars, and adjoining Ladies’ Lounges. The Ladies’ Lounge had drinks at a premium (“a penny or so more” according to Doris). A regular couple couldn’t afford for the wife to pay the extra penny and pleaded with Doris to let them both in the front bar. Doris asked the patrons if they minded, and on being granted permission warned the woman:
“There’ll be cursing and spitting and I don’t want to hear a word of complaint from you.”

Later Doris negotiated with Hell’s Angel gang leaders while running the Marlborough Hotel in Newtown in the 1960s and gave Sydney late night cool at the Hollywood in the 2000s. She’s still a force to be reckoned with in her 80s, propping up that same stick.

Women with balls have always held court. And proven by the likes of Tash Conte at the helm of The Black Pearl, Rachelle Hair breaking boundaries at The Baxter Inn, Jess Arnott slaying Reserve Brands at Diageo and Dominique Easter making life blurry at The Hazy Rose, nothing has changed. Women with swagger are still tending a bar near you. Drag up a stool and ask for a Hanky Panky.

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