Girly Drinks: A World History of Women and Alcohol 
by Mallory O’Meara.
Hanover Square, 392 pp., $27.99, October, 978 1 335 28240 8
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My mother’s funeral​ took place on Zoom during lockdown, and attendees were encouraged to remember her by smoking indoors and drinking vodka. I think I was thirteen when a doctor first explained that maman would have to give up drink completely. It didn’t happen. Empty Smirnoff bottles used to clink around the bottom of her wardrobe when the cat crawled in there to hide from visitors. ‘Listen,’ Mallory O’Meara writes in a footnote to Girly Drinks, ‘I’m not telling you not to drink vodka.’ It’s just that its goal ‘is to be as tasteless and clear as possible. It doesn’t add anything flavour-wise to a drink – it’s not supposed to.’ I don’t agree. The funeral vodka tasted like grass and minerals, teardrops and clouds.

As censorious jokes about ‘wine moms’ suggest, the fact that the gap between male and female alcohol consumption worldwide is steadily closing generates anxiety. We require reproductive workers and feminised people in general to be on call, 24/7, just in case hubby or baby or the boss requires our attention. Breaking out the rosé signals an interruption to the (double, triple) shift. Worse, it hints at a desire to go on strike. It has always struck me as revealing that a popular gauge for alcoholism is whether a person’s drinking interferes with their work – rather than, say, being the thing enabling them to go to work.

Recalcitrant women in the 14th century could achieve a degree of economic independence by keeping a cauldron of beer bubbling, flavoured with bog myrtle, horseradish, juniper, caraway, yarrow, sycamore sap, ivy or acorns. Today, witch costumes for Halloween look as they do because alewives in England, O’Meara explains, ‘wore tall, sometimes pointed, hats in order to distinguish themselves and stand out in a crowded marketplace. The alestakes that advertised their product were essentially brooms – long sticks with a bundle of twigs tied to the end.’ The local aletaster policed the alewives and enforced regulations. A decree in 1375, for example, stated that alestakes, which functioned like neon ‘open’ signs and stuck out from above the alewife’s door, could not be taller than seven feet. The persecution of Europe’s witches, by this account, becomes in part a way of disciplining a class of semi-autonomous beer producers into accepting the work and gender order of the domestic household.

Ever since Hammurabi’s Code (a set of Babylonian legal texts composed around 1754 bce), most societies have restricted a woman’s freedom to enjoy, make and/or administer alcohol. Romulus is said to have imposed the death penalty on women who drank. The Gin Act of 1751 pushed Englishwomen’s genever shops out of the trade. Nevertheless, as Girly Drinks argues, they persisted: ‘There have been female distillers … female brewers, bartenders and, most importantly, drinkers in every part of the world since alcohol was first created. They have always been there, not just alongside men but usually one step ahead of them.’ The word bridal comes from bride-ale: an English tradition of raising money for a wedding whereby ‘a bride-to-be brewed a bunch of ale and threw a big party.’ In Vietnam, O’Meara notes, ‘the word nau means both to make alcohol and to cook.’

The story of women and alcohol ignites wherever the politics of gender, colonisation and class is involved. Indigenous South American chicheras, pulque makers and clandestinistas circulated their drinks in defiance of the Catholic colonisers. Under apartheid, South African women waged a decades-long boycott of municipal beerhalls, vindicating their right to brew umqombothi (maize or sorghum beer) and to be served non-native beer, too, if they wanted. Nepalese women rose up in the 1970s against attempts to remove raksi production from their kitchens and industrialise it. If there is a common ingredient in accounts of alcohol-laced struggles from below, it’s the insistence of the oppressed on their freedom to distil and brew autonomously.

O’Meara shows more or less equal enthusiasm for girlbosses and for the proletarian and peasant women who made and sold drink. She manages to strike a compromise with the publishing industry’s ‘X badass women who brought the world Y’ formula in fifteen chapters on fifteen different women, finding space for nameless brewsters, bootleggers, moonshiners and shebeen queens as well as extending the list of named characters well beyond fifteen. The chapter entitled ‘Ada Coleman’s American Bar’, for example, spends plenty of time on Louise Pommery and her brut champagne (Coleman was bartender at the Savoy for more than twenty years); the chapter on Veuve Clicquot discusses Tatsu’uma Kiyo’s house of sake. The chapter on Mary Frith (Middleton and Dekker’s ‘Roaring Girl’) describes the invention in the second century of the alembic still or tribokos by the alchemist Maria the Jewess of Alexandria, which made possible the aqua vitae that Mary the cutpurse would swig. The chapter on the Jamaican rum tycoon Joy Spence takes a detour to admire the achievements of Rachel Barrie at Glenmorangie and Helen Mulholland at Bushmills, among others.

Prohibition, O’Meara writes, is ‘usually the point in alcohol history that people associate with women’. In the first decade of the 20th century, Carrie Nation of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union carried out what she called ‘hatchetations’ against ‘devil’s schoolhouses’ throughout the American Midwest (the bar sign ‘All Nations Welcome, Except Carrie’ became popular). On the opposing side in what became a war of respectable housewives over liquor was Pauline Sabin and the Women’s Organisation for National Prohibition Repeal. But Girly Drinks doesn’t dwell on the fact that the people who successfully campaigned to impose – and then overturn – temperance on the population of the United States were women.

In her zeal to undo the erasure of feminine boozing and establish the female character of alcohol production, distribution and – ‘most importantly’ – consumption, O’Meara overcorrects. ‘If you want to know how a society treats its women,’ she writes, ‘all you have to do is look into the bottom of a glass.’ Elsewhere in the book she is more cautious: ‘During my research, it was impossible not to notice how strong the correlation was between a culture that allowed women to drink and a culture that gave women their freedoms.’ But she falls into the trap of subscribing to some of the patriarchal ideas she exposes, notably that women and alcohol, in and of themselves, spell feminist subversion. ‘Drinking women are a challenge to a patriarchal society,’ she announces. Are we?

This hypothesis fades as her account reaches the mid 20th century. O’Meara lacks the theoretical framework to say so (she refers in passing to ‘capitalism’s problems’), but her account implies that by this juncture capitalism had largely co-opted alcohol’s potential as a technology of weak resistance to work discipline (and gendered work discipline specifically). What begins as a study of the political economy of patriarchal enclosure, traced through the control and consumption of alcohol, becomes a succession of biographies of beverage capitalists who happen to have been female. It’s not clear what is insurgent about the Pink Boots Society (a non-profit for brewmistresses) or Women Who Tiki (‘a community of bartenders and drink fanatics’). It’s actually easier to see the depressive, often isolated, boozing of the archetypal 1950s housewife as ‘a challenge to patriarchal society’ by virtue of its refusal of toxic positivity.

Earlier, O’Meara exposed the racism and misogyny underpinning the contempt for Cleopatra in Greek and Roman culture – an animus that fixed on her love of drinking. She gives an account of antiquity’s invention of the double standard for drunkenness: in noblemen, it enhanced natural virility, ‘while in women [of all classes] it destroyed their honour and inverted the gender hierarchy’. One of the appealing features of O’Meara’s book is her love for carousing women: ‘working-class women brewing – topless and up to their elbows in beer’; Moll Cutpurse; Calamity Jane; Yang Guifei (concubine of the Tang emperor Xuanzong) with her wine-flushed cheeks and jewel-encrusted cups; ‘an affluent Egyptian woman named Chratiankh (birth and death dates unknown)’ whose tomb inscription was said to read: ‘I was a mistress of drunkenness, one who loved a good day, who looked forward to [having sex] every day, anointed with myrrh and perfumed with lotus scent.’

Alcohol legislation, O’Meara notes, is often ‘about who is drinking. These laws usually target poor populations, poor women specifically, and poor non-white women most of all.’ An all too brief discussion of ‘the intense panic’ about the ‘bad mother’ and foetal alcohol syndrome is wedged between passages on ‘ladette’ culture, lesbian bars and Rohypnol (‘Watch Your Drink!’). She mentions the 1989 US legislation that required warning labels on bottles and cans of alcohol ‘for pregnant women’, claiming that it ‘was undoubtedly a good thing’, even though pregnant women weren’t part of their target market in the first place.

Women from the Islamic world don’t make it into Girly Drinks. I would have been interested to hear about Muslim analogues of the stories O’Meara tells about European and East Asian antiquity: the gendered power struggles to control the production, sale and consumption of fermented grapes. What about Arab women’s ‘wine poetry’, for example? The Umayyad poet Layla al-Akhyaliyya wrote of a man called Tauba that ‘he was honey – no, I see a beehive his likeness,/with the liquor of reddest Baisan wine.’ According to several accounts, women openly participated in gatherings where alcohol was drunk in Timurid Central Asia under the Mongol emperor Tamerlane. Were all the arak makers and vintners who catered for those parties men? Stephanie Honchell, a historian at Ohio State University, claims the belief that all forms of Islam have always prohibited alcohol consumption ‘paints Muslims as exempt from the diversity of approaches to religious restrictions and regulations found in virtually all societies throughout human history’. Honchell recounts an anecdote from the memoirs of the 16th-century Mughal emperor Babur:

Upon hearing that a woman, Huhlul Anikä, wanted to join his wine parties, Babur was not opposed to the idea; on the contrary, claiming never to have seen a woman drink before, he excitedly invited her to come. Unfortunately, Babur’s experience did not make him want to revive this aspect of nomadic culture. While everything started off well, Babur found it impossible to relax because Huhlul Anikä would not stop talking and making ‘offensive requests’. He finally escaped her by pretending to be drunk and … does not record any further attempts to include women in his drinking parties.

Perhaps, in planning her ‘world history’, O’Meara subconsciously adhered to the Western idea that Arab feminism is a contradiction in terms. Or perhaps narratives of extinction were thought incompatible with the upbeat tone required of a pop history. She nervously inserts girlpower stylings and winecracks into every third paragraph: ‘scientists from this period used bullshit biological ideas to support the oppression of women. Don’t drink liquor, ladies – that’s man-juice!’; ‘Looking for the patron saint of drunken poetry? Sorry, Charles Bukowski. Li Qingzhao is the reigning monarch of booze and writing’; ‘Instead of inquiring about her whiskey, [the press] wanted to know why Cleo [Lythgoe, Queen of the Bootleggers] was single and what her love life was like. Silly reporters. Girls don’t like boys, they like whiskey and money.’

When I told him that I was reviewing a book called Girly Drinks, a heavily tattooed, male skinhead friend texted me enthusiastic encouragement: ‘I prize very highly the feeling of nuzzling with my top lip, tapir-like, for the edge of a straw among a profusion of sliced fruit, sugar rim and tiny paper umbrellas.’ Of course, a girly drink can be like this. Or, as O’Meara says, it can be ‘a glass of neat, single-malt Scotch’. If you want to be a true ‘whisky woman’, she adds, you’ll pay homage to Bessie Williamson, the former owner of the Laphroaig distillery, and the only woman to manage a Scottish whisky distillery in the 20th century, and ‘grab a pair of vintage glasses, put on a frumpy, wool cardigan and twist [your] hair into a sensible updo’. I notice that I appear to have arrived again at an image of my mother.

Few things give me as much pleasure as a dram of Laphroaig at room temperature, spicy with peat and bonfires and mermaid corpses. Despite or conceivably because of this, Instagram keeps bombarding me with invitations to switch to alcohol-free alternatives and to sample mocktails endorsed by Chrissy Teigen or by Holly Whitaker, author of the New York Times bestseller Quit like a Woman: The Radical Choice to Not Drink in a Culture Obsessed with Alcohol. It was recently explained to me that the algorithm inundates me with sobriety aids because it thinks (based on my demographic data and my associated search terms: ‘surrogacy’, ‘family’) that I want to get pregnant. This amuses me, but if the world wants women not to use alcohol, it should abolish the conditions that make it necessary.

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