The Public House: Issues of Gender Differentiation and the Use of Social Space

Jarod Harvey

Although the public house in Great Britain has a long history, the pub, as we know it today can be closely related that of the Victorian period.  Before the nineteenth century in Britain there were taverns, offering food, drink and perhaps a bed for travellers.  These all-purpose centres became un economic and specialisation occurred: hotels, restaurants and pubs. (Rogers B 1988: 24)  Also the Victorian era was different from past histories of drinking in that the use of the internal space was different, the internal geographies of the pub-launched a new discourse about morality and licensing. (Kneale 1999: 333)  The Victorian era seems an ideal starting point when looking at the social issues that exist in the pub today.  Rogers suggests it is worth stepping back and looking at the pub scene, how it has and hasn’t changed since the establishment of the pub as a major social institution in the last century, and the invisible barriers that still persist at different times of the day, in different parts of the pub. (1988: 3)  This period is also a good standpoint when wishing to address the long-standing struggle for females who wish to enjoy equal status in the public house.  In the Victorian pub a clear pattern of gender differentiation emerged within and without this particular social space, a form of male domination made possible by female exclusion, control, and oppression (Harrison 1981 in Hey 1986: 14) 

 The Unwelcome Female

The main theme of this paper is to discuss the premise that the public house is a social space controlled by men at the expense of women. (Hey 1986)  The pub is important in the context of men only meeting places because it is a public place, restricted by custom and practice. (Rogers B 1988: 3)  When I asked the landlady of my local why she thought the pub was a male dominated social space, and that women were rarely accepted she stated that it was tradition, it had always been like that. (Appendix 2)  Although simplistic and devoid of depth, there is evidence to suggest that there’s an element of realism within the assertion.  Any lone woman in a pub can be placed in the ‘non respectable’ category for the historical reason that the only women who entered pubs openly were prostitutes, whose services were demanded by male clienteles. (Hey 1986: 34)  The unconventional and rough (women) had always been seen in bars but respectable women in many areas would never have dreamed of entering such a place. (Roberts E 1984: 122) 

Walvin identifies two main leisure pursuits during this period, organised drinking and prostitution. (Cited in Green et al 1990)  The public house was an ideal vehicle for these interests.  These offered little scope for women.  It was often felt that women who drank were poor mothers. (Kneale 1999: 332)  Institutionalised working class women who were failing to perform as mothers or were guilty of sexual infractions. (332)  The belief that the pub is a sexualised social space still exists today.  Any women in a pub then, and even now were assumed to be available. (Roberts B 1988: 24)  We think her ‘on the prowl’, ‘ on the loose’, or even on the game. (Hey 1986: 4)  Unaccompanied and unexplained, we place her in all these categories because there exists in popular culture and practice a conception that pubs for the most part are male enclaves and that individual women who enter them are therefore ‘after only one thing’. (4)  This of course could depend on the type of establishment.  The landlady of my local stated that as her pub was mainly furnished with couples, most young people would go into the city centre to look for ‘company’. (Appendix 2)  The clubs and pubs of the city centre have always been well known as a place to find a partner, whether long-term or transitory.  The Kingsway Community Centre on the other hand is different.  It is not unusual for males and females in the club to go out with other regulars once a relationship has ended.  It is not uncommon also for partners to change in the club once a relationship has come to an end.

Why do men like to drink in pubs?

If we are asking the question and trying to investigate why women do not use pubs, then we should ask the question why they are so popular for men?  Placing aside for one moment that men have more time available than women and control over household expenses, what other reasons are there?  Again lets look to the Victorian period for some guidance.  As stated earlier pubs, as we know them today are a Victorian creation especially regarding the social upheavals and distress of the industrial revolution.  A retreat from the backbreaking labour and appalling housing conditions, noise arguments, cold and dirt (from which women, though had no escape, but also a whole social centre and meeting or market place, the men’s working club for the new working class (Roberts B 1988: 24). 

There is also a suggestion that a mans masculinity is linked with the ability to consume vast quantities of alcohol.   Working class notions of masculinity were very much grounded in drinking deeply, which was both a sign and an expression of ones virility. (Hey 1986: 27)  During my observations I have seen much evidence of this, especially ritual behaviour between one man and his son. Hey states that working men marked their sons maturity by making them publicly drunk. (1986: 28)  In my local a man and his son both dressed in painting and decorating clothes drink after work. (See Appendix 1 day: 11)  It seems that the wearing of their work clothes is a measure of their pride in their manual, arguably manly type of work.  There is no practicable reason why they cannot go home first, just around the corner to shower or change clothes. 

It has been suggested that ritual behaviour exists in pubs, commonly known as male bonding.  Hey states that

male bonding is institutionalised learned behaviour whereby men recognise and reinforce one another’s bone fide membership in the male gender class.  Male bonding is how men get the power and male bonding is how it is kept. (1986: 10)
From my observations male bonding includes, heavy drinking, pub games and discussions of sport. (See Appendix 1: day 7)  As the drink flows the bonding takes the form of ‘mickey taking’ and teasing.  The game is to get someone ‘to bite’, in other words to react to the joke.  Whiteheads study of a Herefordshire pub, The Waggoner witnessed similar behaviour.  She witnessed cohesive bonding an incessant rivalry amongst the men. (Whitehead 1976 in Hey 1986: 70)  I have been interested to see how close the bond is between the drinkers at Kingsway.  In the Waggoner, Whitehead stated that the relationships would blow hot and cold men who have been constant companions for some weeks would avoid each other. (1976: 195 in Hey 1986: 71)  At Kingsway the relationships between the men generally exists within the confines of the pub.  The exceptions are when men go on stag nights or foreign holidays.  The prerequisite though on all these occasions is that a large quantity of alcohol is consumed.  Similar behavioural patterns albeit in a different locale.  Some have left the group when they decide to settle with their partners and have families.  It is not uncommon for them to return when their relationships fail.  After some initial teasing they are accepted back as a drinker and a local.

Women's limitations to pub drinking 

Empirical evidence is provided in the appendix of this paper to back up my observations that men are more prevalent in the public house.  This statement would surprise few and induce little argument.  Walk into any pub throughout the day or night to see that men outnumber women in public houses.   The following sections in some part explain why this is so.


We have seen that the public house in the Victorian period was what Valerie Hey terms a masculine republic. (1986: 15)  According to Hey the public house over one hundred years later is still a site of male domination.  Women accompanied in the 1980’s are subject to male hostility that ranges from silent scrutiny to sexual hostility, and is strongly reminiscent of Victorian attitudes towards consumption of alcohol in public houses. (Hey 1986 cited in Wimbush and Turner 1988: 134)  Hey though is not the only author who suggests that the pub is still a site of female oppression in the 1980’s.  Most women experience discomfort if they go into pubs, clubs, restaurants and wine bars without a male escort, and unwanted attention is not uncommon. (Green et al 1990)  Women entering pubs alone in particular suffer at the hands of this male dominated sphere.  Lone women entering pubs feel odd, isolated and out of place.  They often use coping strategies which vary from avoiding looking directly at people, keeping eyes lowered, and wearing carefully modest well thought out clothes. (Deem R 1987: 134)  Women were asked the reasons why they would not drink in pub by themselves. (Appendix 3)  They stated that they would feel uneasy, vulnerable and they didn’t want to attract unwanted attention.  On the other hand the reason why the men question wouldn't particularly like to drink alone is that they feel drinking is a social activity and would prefer companionship.

It is difficult for me to provide any in depth comment on the behaviour of single women drinking alone in pubs today.  This is due to the fact that I have been unable to record a single account of a woman that I have seen drinking in a pub I have frequented.  The only women that I have noticed drinking alone are those that frequent the local pub and are well known to the regulars.  These women though do generally keep to the immediate bar area and mostly chat away to the landlady.  Women today are still not willing to drink in a pub by themselves. (See appendix 3)  The only females that would be happy to drink in a pub alone stated they would only do so in a local pub where they would be well known.  Males questioned on the other hand would be happier to drink in a pub by themselves.  There is also evidence that shows that women would even feel uneasy about going to the pub alone.  Women feel in danger walking the streets alone at night.  Rosemary Deems study of Sheffield women stated that many were afraid to go into the city centre alone at night. (1986).  So even if a female is happy to drink in her local where her recognition makes her feel comfortable, the journey to the pub can be seen as a limitation to this type of leisure activity.

Household responsibilities 

One of the main limitations that women have to endure when wishing to enjoy leisure time is the responsibility to the house and home.  During the Victorian period while the man sought solace in the pub his wife was expected to preside in lonely isolation over family and home. (Roberts E 1984: 123)  This was not to say women did not enjoy any leisure time but women's leisure was given less priority in the household budget with men’s right to personal spending more widely accepted. (Kneale 1999)  Even today women suffer from similar constraints as their ancestors.  Although it is claimed that the sexual division of labour is becoming less rigid (Gershuny & Jones 1987), there is little evidence to suggest it is disappearing altogether, and much to suggest that it remains the responsibility of women to do housework and to provide childcare. (Maynard 1985 cited in Deem 1988)  The majority of women questioned stated that the responsibilities of children were a factor in why they did not enjoy more leisure time. (Appendix 3)  Women’s housework and responsibilities do not fit into the conventional working day; many women are constantly on call. (Green et al 1990)  For women the home is a workplace, even if they also have a job outside it and also have responsibilities for others, their children and male partners. (Deem R 1988: 12)  Even though women have gained opportunities in work, they are generally not free from the primary role as caregiver at home (Hochschild 1989 cited in Bialeschki 1996)  Leisure time for women has increased in recent years, the responsibilities to the family still seems to be a primary role for the female, and certainly limits the amount of leisure time available, especially compared to men.

Women as appendages

Women to a large extent entered the pub as appendages of men.  They came into the pub as wives, sisters, girlfriends, but hardly ever as women.  During the post war period it became more socially acceptable for ‘respectable’ women to go into pubs with their husbands. (Roberts E 1984: 122)  Are single women more socially acceptable in pubs today?  Green suggests that the single female drinker is still largely unacceptable. (1990: 124)  Harrison’s mass observation found that men ‘brought’ their wives and sometimes other female relatives to the pub lounge at weekends, bought them drinks- another common feature of pub culture now. (Rogers B 1988: 26)  My observations conclude that this statement has many elements of truth within it.  In the Kingsway Community Centre women are generally only seen at weekends, they sit together whilst their partners talk about the days football. (Appendix 1: day 6)  The only interaction they seem to have is when the male goes to the bar to get the woman a drink. 

It reinforces the idea that a man is free to spend as much as he likes on himself while his wife has to wait until he decides to buy her something: so the imbalance between men and women’s spending power is very much a part of this transaction, and the pub convention that women do not buy their own drinks in the pub. (Rogers B 1988: 28) 

The question to ask is whether the females entering the pub realise that they are as appendages to their men?  Could we argue that they would perhaps prefer the company of other females and are happy to be grouped as such.  Evidence shows that people use cognitive strategies when modifying leisure behaviour. (Bialeschki 1996: 207)  They might also change their leisure aspirations and become accepting of a lower level of quality of participation. (207)  In effect the female might well be happy to go to the pub as an appendage even if she doesn’t realise that she is, a consequence  perhaps of being able to enjoy leisure time.  It has also been argued that women acting as appendages had the chance to be to keep an eye on their husbands drinking and in turn finances.  The majority of men who drank did so within the limitations of their pocket money, but some women thought it worthwhile to keep a check on the situation. (Roberts E 1984: 114)

Women Drinking on Their Own.  Token Gestures or a Serious Attempt to Counteract the Uneven Balance in the Public House.   

Constraints do not necessarily prevent participation in leisure activities. (Bialeschki 1996: 206)  Though the evidence clearly shows that more men use pubs than women, it is interesting to see which ways women use pubs.  We have already discussed the reasons why females are unwilling to use a public house on their own.  The one exception I have seen is the single female who is well known in a local and causes no suspicion or casts no ulterior motive.  This is closely linked with the ability to be instantly recognised in the local.  It does not take long for the groups’ personal details to be common knowledge in the pub, for example employment details and marital status.  The single drinking female doesn’t warrant the attentions of males that and un recognised female would thus, avoiding the stigma attached to a female drinking in a pub alone.  The single female will also use pub space to avoid unwanted attention.  They will go to great lengths to be able to sit as close to the barmaid as soon as a chair becomes available. The recent introduction of two ‘Captains style’ chairs in my local at either end of the small bar has become essential in the attempt to gain maximum attention from the landlady.  The single females spend much of their time in conversation with the bar maid (See Appendx 1: day 1,2)  Hey suggests the role of the barmaid is interesting.  

After purchasing the barmaid a drink the men assumed that she would listen to their complaints about their wives, and generally offer a sympathetic non-judgemental ear, a perfect construction of male fantasies- maternal and sexual, offering a safe pseudo flirtation. (Hey 1986 cited in Roberts 1988: 27)

The landlady of my local would agree with such sentiment.  As a landlady you must be mother, social worker, banker all with a smile and no opinion.  You must never be shocked and always agree. (See Appendix 2)  The barmaid’s feminine attributes are popular with women as well as men, the females can be seen to use these attributes, whilst discussing feminine issues. (See appendix 1: 1)    

Roberts suggest that females will inherit a new regular with a new man and when a relationship breaks up she disappears from the scene, losing contact with the whole group. (Rogers B 1988: 16)  She goes on to state that the local is theirs as long as they are with the man who is the true member of the particular pub family. (16)  I would agree in some part as I have witnessed that when males and females split in the pub the men maintain their position and the female is never seen again unless she then goes with another regular in the same pub, which is a common occurrence in the Kingsway Community Centre.  

It is axiomatic in the community that men are entitled to endless supply of nights out and Whitehead notes that although women are fighting back, their inability to mobilise a group effectively reduces their initiatives to individual private ‘ solutions’ to a general social disenfranchisement, which they all share. (Hey 1986: 65)  If women are fighting back I would suggest it is merely a subconscious attempt.  Thursday’s women’s darts nights could be construed as an attempt to gain some pub space back from men. This attempt is merely a token gesture, as Thursday passes the space returns back to its traditional holders, men.  Women's darts in general is not a serious affair, some women have trouble finding the target, it seems that the playing of darts is a secondary motive for attending this social occasion. (See appendix 1 day 5,9)  Men’s Darts on a Friday is a much more serious event, played out in near silence with a degree of skill on display. 

In my local there are more social activities available to women.  These range from Ann Summers Parties, these are parties where women can by sexual aids, clothing etc. but also to have a drink, play games and talk about the funnier side of men.  The landlady has also arranged all female shopping trips London at Christmas and regular female hair dressing in her private accommodation.  This is in some part due to the landlady being a female; she actively encourages activities for females. (Appendix 1: 12)  Hey suggests that all women social networks represent a threat to male ‘pseudo relationships’. 
Women i.e. their wives transmit crucial personal details about men to each other, which may be used in evidence amongst the husbands to expose an individuals particular sensitivities.  Men are therefore hostile to female solidarity and therefore go to considerable lengths to subvert it. (Hey 1986: 70)  

It has been difficult to find any evidence that the male pub drinkers I have spoken to are too concerned about the all female activities that take place in and out of the pub.  Most indeed encourage their partners to go out and enjoy their own time, happy to look after the kids or wait in the pub while the women are out on their all female events. (Appendix 1: 12) It is perhaps the case that men will give back some time to females more than during Whiteheads study of 1976, ultimately though these events are relatively rare, compared to those of the men.

The Male/Female Dichotomy- The Future

A new way of drinking has emerged over the last few years.  Pub chains like JD Whetherspoons and Yates wine lodges are transforming the traditional nature of the pub.  Be it coincidence or clever marketing these pubs offer the chance for women, children and families the chance to use pubs bereft of the oppressive and mono gendered local pub that history dictates exists.  A short comparative study (see appendix 1: day 7) shows the major difference between the local and the national pub.  Davis states that the pub should not of course change its character in response to every fickle breeze of fashion, but cater for a reasonable consensus of demand as far as standards of amenity are concerned (1981: ix)  Although not ubiquitous the pub is seeing an alteration never witnessed since the Victorian period.  Davis offers a word of warning to those who wish to see a change in the make up and design of the pub.  He contests the doctrine that bars should be in some way altered or restyled in order to appeal to women (1981: 81)  He argues that apart from poor toilet facilities women are quite happy to accept the manliness of the pub.  The feminine bar will not appeal to the ladies. (Davis B 1981: 100)  Roberts asks the question

what does it matter for women if they have to fore go the activities of the pub.  What does the mainstream pub offer, after all, being with some perhaps very boring companions who cant honestly talk about themselves with any degree of honesty, and often not very comfortable surroundings which may be dominated by the blast of loud music or the squawks of the games machines. (Roberts 1988: 29) 
Her suggestion that women could forego a leisure facility if not appealing, would undoubtedly cause a stir in feminist circles.  The superpubs are challenging the mainstream.  The Superpubs ban music, have no smoking areas, the noise of the fruit machines turned off.  Purists like Davis would argue that the new style of pub is diminishing what makes the British pub special and unique.  The days of the local aren’t believed to be over (See Apendix 3) The new pub chains are easily recognisable with a similar standard of service, interior and product.  The super pub gives another option for those who wish to use a public house.  The surroundings are more suitable for those, like women who do not appreciate the sometimes-oppressive atmosphere of the local.


Rosemary Deem suggests that women are constrained by patriarchal relations of male dominance to a much greater extent than many researchers realise. (1988: 13)  From my observations I would agree that females in the most part act as appendages to men in the pub, and the connotations of a single unknown female being sexually available still exists.  I have yet to come across any specific or noticeable evidence to suggest that men actively try to subvert and antagonise women to avoid drinking in their pub..  Perhaps with the use of male bonding techniques men sub consciously contribute to an oppressive atmosphere in the pub.  This could perhaps take the form of male grouping around the bar arguably the most important area of the pub.  The playing of pool and card games seems to be reserved for males.  In the Kingsway club, women are not generally seen playing pool or cards this mono gendered behaviour could also affect women's receptiveness in the pub.

As stated in this papers methodology I do not suggest this is a definitive account of life in all pubs throughout the country.  There are undoubtedly pubs around the country that do not welcome women for example Greens research of working men’s pubs in Sheffield (1990).  My local might also be an exception, perhaps due to the positive actions of the landlady, attempting to induce some measure of equality within her pub.  The use of a comparison with the Victorian period has been a useful and interesting exercise.  It has surprised me that there are definite links to the behaviour in pubs of over one hundred years ago.  Un recognised single women in pubs are still regarded with suspicion, with an accompanied element of sexual availability existing.  

Times have changed since Valerie Hey wrote her work in 1986.  I accept that the local and the public house in general is a male dominated social space.  The future though looks brighter for women.  Although the single un recognised female still conjures up devious connotations women in general are now much more accepted in the pub, than when Whitehead and Hey wrote their papers.  The Superpubs, as they are known, offer better interiors and atmospheres for drinkers, which better facilitates women.   The traditional composition of the pub and British attitudes to pub culture in general are unlikely to change overnight.  Perhaps the pub is simply a man thing and women would not like to claim equal status in the pub.  Women though today have more time and different premises available than their Victorian ancestors and that must surely be a good thing. Women’s leisure is not going to be transformed overnight by women leaning on bar counters and consuming gallons of fizzy beers as Deem suggests, but perhaps in pursuits away from dominated sexually perilous places. 

back to guest page