From historic discoveries and inventions to Supreme Court cases, the impact of women in drinks history is seen in every facet of the culture. In honor of Women’s History Month, here are six women who laid bricks on the path that is tread by modern women continuing to make the world of drinks more interesting, equitable and delicious.
Hildegard of Bingen
While the first known recipe for beer may have come from the ancient Sumerians in the form of the Hymn to Ninkasi, the goddess of brewing, it is believed one of the first written records noting the use of hops in brewing can be attributed to Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). Born in Germany, Hildegard was a Benedictine abbess, Christian mystic and polymath, skilled in musical composition, philosophy, biology, and medicine. Though deeply religious, she often pushed the bounds of the patriarchal structure of the church and its accepted roles for women at the time, and her wisdom was regularly sought by European nobility. In a collection of her writings, Physica, she notes that the use of hops in brewing can help prevent the spoilage of beer. “[She] wrote about the use of hops and barley in brewing during an era when the huge majority of women (and men) were illiterate, in the early 1100s,” says Theresa McCulla, curator of the American Brewing History Initiative for the Smithsonian Institute.
Born in Reims, France, in 1777, Barb-Nicole Ponsardin is better known by the name printed on one of the most recognizable brands of Champagne in the world—Veuve Clicquot. After the untimely death of her husband François Clicquot in 1805, Barb-Nicole, now the Widow Clicquot, convinced her father-in-law to let her take over the family’s failing wine business, risking her own inheritance. Struggling under the Napoleonic Wars and nearly bankrupt, Barb-Nicole gambled that the Russian market, which had a taste for very sweet Champagnes, would embrace her product. She had cases of wine smuggled through blockades into Holland, and as soon as peace was declared, the wines were shipped on to Russia—beating all of her competitors— where Tsar Alexander declared it the only Champagne he would drink. International fame swiftly followed, and Barb-Nicole had to figure out how to increase production. She developed the method of riddling, where bottles are stored upside down to gather the yeast in the neck for disgorgement, which is still practiced by modern makers. Today, Veuve Clicquot (veuve means widow), is one of the largest Champagne houses in the world.
If you’ve ever enjoyed a cup of pour-over coffee, you can thank Melitta Bentz. “My mother, who had an excellent taste in coffee, was often irritated by the coffee grounds in her cup,” recalled one of her sons, Horst Bentz, in a 1949 interview with a German publication. Her solution was to punch some holes into the bottom of a brass pot, which she then lined with a sheet of blotting paper torn from one of her son’s school books. In 1908, she was granted a patent for her paper coffee filter, and Bentz and her husband started the business in their apartment in Dresden, Germany, with their sons making local deliveries on a handcart. The company continued to grow, introducing a porcelain dripper and a growing line of filters, eventually moving to a larger factory in 1929 in Minden, Germany, which remains in use today. Bentz and her husband oversaw daily operations until 1932 when her sons took over. During her tenure, she implemented policies such as the five-day work week, three weeks of vacation time, Christmas bonuses, and later establishing Melitta Aid, a social fund for the employees. Today the Melitta Group is a billion-dollar company with more than 5,000 employees globally.
At a time when women behind the bar were still referred to as barmaids, Ada Coleman was a true mixologist in today’s parlance. Coleman, or “Coley” as she was affectionately called by her adoring patrons, served as head bartender at the famed American Bar at The Savoy hotel in London. She started behind the bar at Claridge’s Hotel in 1899 while in her early 20s and received her first lessons in mixing drinks from the wine butler. Coleman quickly took to the profession, and just a few years later in 1903 she was appointed head bartender at The Savoy’s American Bar where she presided for the next 23 years. A consummate host, Coleman served notable patrons like Charlie Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich, Mark Twain and comic actor Charles Hawley, for whom she created the now-classic Hanky Panky cocktail. In February of 1926, when Coleman left the American Bar (followed in position by Harry Craddock), newspapers across the city touted the news, with London’s Daily Express declaring her “queen of the cocktail mixers.”
In Harlan County, Kentucky, Maggie Bailey was also deemed a queen—”Queen of the Mountain Bootleggers.” In the 1920s, at just 17 years old, Bailey began bootlegging to help support her five younger siblings. Proving to have a knack for the practice, she kept at it for decades, also becoming an expert on the Fourth Amendment’s search and seizure laws. Though she was hauled into court dozens of times, Bailey was only ever convicted once for selling moonshine, serving about 18 months. She continued to bootleg in dry Harlan County for the next 50 years. Not only was she never arrested again, but she was beloved by the community, reportedly using her money to help local families buy coal, groceries, and even pay for college tuition. Politicians sought her endorsement to help get elected, and former U.S. District Judge Karl Forester noted, “I always thought she was a delightful lady.” Bailey finally quit bootlegging at age 95, and she was nationally eulogized upon her death in 2005 at the age of 101.
In 1947, Michigan implemented a law that required all bartenders in cities with a population of at least 50,000 to be licensed by the state. The law also asserted that women, unless they were the wife or daughter of the bar owner, could not obtain a license. Valentine Goesaert owned her own tavern in Dearborn, Michigan, and employed her daughter Margaret behind the bar. So when the new law threatened her business, Goesaert sued. With her attorney Anne Davidow (herself a pioneer for women’s rights), Goesaert’s case went all the way to the Supreme Court. Davidow argued that the law enacted by the Liquor Control Commission of Michigan violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Unfortunately, the Court ruled against them by a margin of 6-3, with Justice Felix Frankfurter writing the majority opinion that, “The Constitution does not require legislatures to reflect sociological insight, or shifting social standards,” and that the state of Michigan could claim its law protected women from the “moral and social problems… that may confront a barmaid.” However, Goesaert’s case set precedent for the Court to more closely examine cases of discrimination based on gender, and Davidow ultimately convinced the Michigan legislature to repeal the law.
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