Barmaids: A history of women’s work in pubs
Cambridge University Press $90 hb, $29.95 pb, 256 pp
No icon better encapsulates the ethos of male culture than the pub. Sharing a beer in this bastion of male conviviality has been a defining experience in shaping Australian male identity. The pub as a cultural and social institution has attracted the attention of many historians, but none have considered the ubiquitous and yet mysteriously anonymous figure of the barmaid. Although represented in fiction and film, and up until recently, a part of the very fabric of pub culture, the barmaid remains an elusive figure in Australian history.
Diane Kirkby’s meticulously researched and visually arresting cultural history seeks to redress this absence. Barmaids takes us through the beginnings of the pub houses, which were modelled on the English, although they quickly assumed their own character and particular style. As Kirkby notes, hotel keeping was commonly associated with hospitality, so it was perceived as an appropriate occupation for women. Throughout the nineteenth century, many women ran rural pubs either in partnership with husbands, lovers, friends, or on their own as single women. Inextricably tied to colonialism, the pub also served to exclude Aborigines and service those who sought to dispossess them.