Women behind the bar: What a difference a few decades can make

One woman stakes her claim in a mostly male environment and comes up a winner

Recently over a cup of coffee, Jane Gribben, the manager and bartender at Marilyn’s on K, gave me the scoop plus a little bit of her history. Seems that after 14 years in the business, she’s in the midst of putting together a business plan for her own establishment.

Gribben, an intelligent 34-year-old woman with beauty queen looks, might not know that as recently as the 1940s, in some parts of this country, she wouldn’t have been allowed to pursue her dream. Or even work in her chosen profession.

After Prohibition was repealed in 1933 and well into the late 1940s, women were discouraged from tending bar. During the late 1940s, a group of male bartenders in Michigan felt threatened enough by women tending bar to take legal action.

According to the Web site www.georgetownlawjournal.org, “Bartenders argued that women would be bad conversationalists, inefficient and flirtatious. The presence of women bartenders,” the argument went, “also would give wives reasons to keep husbands from patronizing bars and endanger women’s morals. Bartenders’ unions kept women from joining or working in bars staffed by union employees. Temperance activists and moralists joined bartenders in their efforts to prevent women from working behind the bar.”

The ruckus went all the way to the United States Supreme Court and finally in 1955, the Michigan legislature repealed the entire section that had prohibited women from tending bar.

When Gribben listed the qualities that are important to be successful in her job, oddly enough they sound pretty similar to what those crusty old geezers said women couldn’t manage.

“You have to provide good service, friendly conversation, pay attention to the customers and be efficient,” Gribben said.

Bartending has provided Gribben with a route to an independent and satisfying life. A native of Rochester, NY, at 23 she had a chance to move west, when a friend encouraged her to move to Sacramento.

“I kind of thought I might end up moving to San Francisco, but I’ve made a good life for myself here,” she explained.

She’d done a small amount of bartending in New York prior to her move, but most of her training has been on the job over the years. Her first job in Sacramento was at The Glass Onion. There she discovered she had a talent for the work and the money was good for a young woman. Over the next few years she worked at a variety of venues including America Live, a really short stint at Arco Arena behind a portable bar (pretty regimented she says) and Harlow’s. And she’s weathered periods of burnout.

“I have taken temp jobs when I wondered if this was what I really wanted to do,” she said. “And there’s the stigma of people thinking this isn’t a real job.”

But for some it is. Gribben included. She has a group of friends, all in their 30s, for whom the package of flexible hours, social environment and the chance to learn and grow in a job appeals. For Gribben, a first chance to take on more responsibility came during the seven years she worked at the Limelight Bar Café & Card Room. She reorganized the bar, making it easier to work behind (meaning faster) and more efficient and less stressful for the bartenders.

“I think some bars are set up with the idea of form over function rather than being practical and what really works,” Gribben said. “The better a bar is setup the more money it makes and the more time you can spend talking with customers during slow shifts.” Management understood she knew what she was doing and asked her to tackle a different kind of job.

“They had this card room license and activity had kind of died out during the 1980s. They asked me a couple of times if I wanted to do something with it.” Finally, she took them up on the offer leaping on the new learning curve. This meant making sense of the rules of Texas Hold ’em, the poker game played at the Limelight. To learn how to deal a hand and understand how a card room operated, she traveled to Las Vegas.

One thought haunted her about her new responsibilities. It came from an experience she had with her grandfather who had taught her a bunch of card games. As a child, while riding around Detroit with him, Gribben spotted a card room and suggested they stop in and play. He responded, “Those guys don’t want a little girl running around while they’re playing cards.”

Gribben estimates that most card rooms, about 75 percent, are still managed by men. Still, Gribben forged ahead and did well with the new job, bringing the room back to life. It now has six tables.

Like any job, there are drawbacks. The hours can be a burden for some people. Working with people that are drinking can sometimes create issues, but she has pretty much learned to take it all in stride. There’s no health insurance in her job and some shifts can be rough due to the high jerk quotient. “You pretty much have to check your own ego at the door with this job and keep your sense of humor,” she said. “People are going out for the night and all the feathers are up.”

For now, Gribben is happy at Marilyn’s. She’s taken on more managerial tasks and is busy with plans for her new business that she hopes will be open in a year or so. And her favorite drink … a Washington Apple. Stop by and ask her to make you one.