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50 Years Ago, Female Bartenders Became Legal in Chicago

A cringeworthy court transcript sheds light on a long-held bastion of sexism in the city.

Jean Ussellman, 25, pours beer for a customer. Ussellman was bartending in “Red” Kellys Tavern at 2568 N. Clark Street in Chicago on July 12, 1941.  
Photo: Irvin Heberg / Chicago Herald American

Fifty years ago, a judge overturned Chicago’s Barmaid Ordinance, which banned women from working as bartenders unless they were related to the tavern owner.

Even by 1970 standards, the law was antiquated, resisting a cultural revolution that was already well underway. The Civil Rights Act had been in force for six years. Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl had been out for eight. And a Chicagoan named Hugh Hefner was having a heck of a time at the original Playboy Mansion, just a couple miles north of the federal courtroom where the barmaid case was heard.

Lead plaintiff Carolyn McCrimmon told the Chicago Tribune that pouring drinks was better than factory work for mothers because their children could reach them more easily by phone. She also said women were better than men at handling nasty drunks: “If you’ve got someone who’s belligerent, he’s more likely to listen to a woman than to a man. If it’s a man behind the bar, the troublemaker is more likely to start swinging, but they usually don’t swing at a woman.”

While the ordinance itself seems ludicrous, the court arguments for McCrimmon v. Daley, heard a half century ago this week, were even more jaw-dropping. A hearing transcript, housed at the National Archives’ regional office in West Lawn and never before republished, documents the proceedings, which roved from off-topic to offensive.

The three main characters in the February 5, 1970 hearing were U.S. District Judge James B. Parsons, the first African American to become a life-tenured federal judge; city attorney Benjamin Novoselsky, representing mayor-defendant Richard J. Daley; and Ellis Reid, attorney for the Metropolitan Tavern Owners Association and several women who wanted to bartend.

Judge Parsons had already issued a temporary restraining order against the ordinance January 27, but it was about to expire when Reid sought a longer-lasting preliminary injunction. Parsons seemed amenable, but had one request.

Parsons: I would sound facetious, wouldn’t I, if I were to suggest that perhaps as a condition to a preliminary injunction they wear britches.

Reid: That they what?

Parsons: That they wear trousers. They could be women as long as they wear trousers, shirts and ties. … When a woman works in an airplane factory, and you know during World War II women had to go to work, they had to wear coveralls, and even now when they work in plants and other industries where the male attire is much more attuned to the situation than the female attire and appearance, they require, and we do nothing about it, male attire.

Then the city attorney tried to chum up with the judge.

Novoselsky: Maybe I am not the best one to argue this motion because I am a stranger when it comes to bars and barmaids, et cetera, although I have no quarrel with people who like to drink. I like to drink scotch on the rocks at home, frankly.

Parsons: Do you really like scotch?

Novoselsky: Yes. For medicinal purposes, of course.

Parsons: On the rocks?

Novoselsky: On the rocks. It is very good, your honor.

Parsons: Which kind?

Novoselsky: Well, I like Chivas Regal, your honor, but I have no quarrel with any other type.

Parsons: You know, your habits are expensive.

Novoselsky tried to get back to business. He said the city was worried about “B-girls,” women hired by tavern owners to encourage patrons to buy drinks. If women were allowed to flirt and pour at the same time, there was no telling what might happen. Novoselsky called it a “definite moral problem” for male customers.

Novoselsky: Your honor, they can sweet-talk them, and they can convince them and they can mesmerize them, some of them hypnotize in some way – a poor fellow would not know what he was drinking and, lo and behold, if something happens in that bar, the licensee can lose his license but Mary can go across the street and get a job there.

Parsons: Do you mean women are in the habit of mesmerizing men?

Novoselsky: Your honor, be it any way any different since time —

Parsons: I am slightly under the naïve impression that a woman in male attire loses some of that capacity for mesmerization.

Novoselsky: Wait just a minute, your honor —

Parsons: Especially if she is shirted or tied so that the bosom is not unduly exposed nor the dress by tradition unduly suggestive. Do you know what I mean?

Novoselsky: Well, your honor, we are getting a little far afield, your honor —

Parsons: I don’t want to do that. We better stay in the same ballpark.

Novolselsky: We are in the same ballpark but we are getting to third base. Your honor, I can visualize a woman in a shirt, a tie and a pair of trousers who to me could pass as a male. I have seen some of the males on this floor here who could pass for women too.

Parsons: Oh, you are always going to have this problem of the transvestite, of the introvert [sic], or something like that, but that has nothing to do with this. I mean, we are talking about real women. No owner of a bar is going to hire a woman who is not a woman.

Novoselsky: Your honor, I am not worried about hiring a woman who is not a woman, but I can see a woman in a pair of trousers who would be more tantalizing to me than a woman in a mini-skirt, your honor. I mean, after all —

Parsons: Do you mean they excite you when they —

Novoselsky: Nothing excites me at my age, your honor. Really, I am ashamed to say that.

Novoselsky made a long, impassioned argument against extending his order, and Reid tried to talk Parsons out of his “britches” provision. But when the hearing ended, Parsons held firm to both. The next month, Parsons made his injunction permanent, ruling that the 1952 ordinance violated the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees equal protection under the law.

That was it for the women bartender ban and the case of McCrimmon vs. Daley. Today, 47 percent of unionized bartenders in the Chicago metro area are women, according to Unite Here Local 1, the union representing bartenders and other hospitality workers.

Though Parsons’s comments in this case were ugly and prejudicial, in life he was a highly respected jurist who went on to become chief judge for the Northern District of Illinois. He died in 1993.

Novoselsky and Reid, also now deceased, went on to become judges. Novoselsky was presiding judge of the Probate Division of the Cook County Circuit Court. Reached recenrtly, his lawyer son Henry said his father never talked to him about the bartender case. Reid, who was African American, served as a special prosecutor after the notorious police raid on the Black Panthers and later became an Illinois Appellate Court judge.

Reid ran for mayor in 1977 but only received about 4,000 votes to the 368,400 cast for Democratic primary winner Michael Bilandic. But at least if Reid wanted to drown his sorrows, anybody could pour his drink.

Mark Jacob is co-author with Richard Cahan and Michael Williams of the new book Chicago Rules: Federal Cases That Defined the City and the Nation.

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