When you hear the phrase “girly drinks,” what comes to mind? Probably pink drinks and cosmos, white wine, and sweet fruity stuff. But what if I told you these concoctions are a pretty recent development that actually reflects a centuries-long history of men trying to exclude women from developments in various important aspects of alcohol as both industry and culture?
Mallory O’Meara’s Girly Drinks: A World History of Women and Alcohol dives deep into the hidden history of women’s intimate involvement with major evolutions and expansions of alcohol. This history spans millennia and reveals that women have always had a hand in both the chemistry and the culture of alcohol, which almost always leads to a backlash in an attempt to exclude women from the world of booze.
Girly Drinks is organized into chapters that cover pretty much every major time period of history, with forays into events happening all over the world during that time period. Starting with the hypothesis that fermented fruits were an integral part of human evolution—easy calories! a shot of creativity!—O’Meara takes us to ancient Mesopotamia where women were in charge of producing beer. Not only that, but poet Enheduanna praised beer in her works, and she was also the first writer in world history to sign her work. This book is littered with similar “firsts,” instances of women contributing to booze history, world history, or both at once.
Subsequent chapters cover the ancient world; the early and high middle ages; the Renaissance; the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries; and significant decades that ensued, such as the 1920s, the 1930s/40s, the 1950s, the 1960s/70s, the 1980s/90s, the 2000s, and the 2010s. And the scope is truly global, since we learn about the beer halls in South Africa and the women who created and innovated sake in Japan.
Not surprisingly, religion weaves in and out of humanity’s relationship with alcohol. Enheduanna was both poet and priestess, and Hildegard von Bingen (one of the most famous women in Christianity) was one of the first to introduce hops into the making of ale, thus ensuring that beer could keep longer and be further innovated upon. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union in the U.S. was behind the push for Prohibition, since as weird as it sounds, it seemed easier to just ban alcohol than to get men to stop drinking away their family’s wages and beating their wives.
Whither the girly drinks, though, this idea that certain drinks are “for” women or “for” men? Honestly, it goes back to the Code of Hammurabi, which prohibited women from public commercial activities (like brewing) and which doled out severe penalties to priestesses who went to taverns. While alcohol remained a major part of many pre-modern people’s lives (it was way easier to make up calorie deficits when beer was a regular part of your diet), various cultures found ways to edge women out, whether it was the Catholic Church demonizing alewives as witches in Europe or the Spanish conquistadors restricting indigenous Mexican (specifically Aztec) women’s ability to sell their native drink pulque (made of agave sap).
Barbe-Nicole Clicquot—yes, of the champagne Veuve Clicquot—was free to innovate precisely because she was widowed. And her method of storing champagne bottles neck-down completed innovated the industry, even though it seemed crazy to her peers at first. Similarly, Tatsu’uma Kiyo was one of the first women to run a sake empire in Japan in the late 1800s, and she did so largely behind the scenes to avoid the everyday misogyny that would otherwise hinder her.
I could keep bringing up both notable and obscure historical women who graced the pages of Girly Drinks, but then this review would be almost as long as the book itself! What I discovered after reading this book was that women have always been involved with alcohol production and innovation, because alcohol has been with humans since we’ve been human. Many patriarchal institutions attempted to demonize or exclude women—there’s actually been legislation in the U.S. banning women from bars!—but women almost always find a way around it.
And with no actual laws banning women from participating in bar culture, we instead have the classification of alcohol by gender: the “cool” drinks like old-fashioneds and craft beers are frequently gendered masculine, while the frivolous flights of fancy deemed feminine frippery are trite, uncool, and so on. This is changing, of course, but damn if it’s not depressing to realize that even our drinking culture is heavily gendered because of pervasive gender norms and ideas about who deserves access to public spaces, who gets to be intoxicated, and so on.
O’Meara’s writing style is fun and accessible, with many a feminist-sympathizing sigh or chuckle in the asides. And there are footnotes and sources too, which makes my scholarly heart so happy. It’s rare to find a book that so gracefully treads between the readable and the researched, but Girly Drinks successfully walks that line.
Whether you enjoy drinking, food/culinary history in general, world history, or are a feminist who’s hungry for women’s history like me, this is a great book to get cozy with…ideally with a beverage of your choice nearby!