We all know what a “girly drink” is: a drink that is sweet, brightly colored, generally served in a stemmed glass and often with an umbrella or some other type of decoration. “Serious” drinks, drinks for men, do not have or need these accoutrements. Can women not enjoy bourbon, scotch or whiskey? Are there no men that enjoy a daiquiri or a cosmopolitan? When, and how, did drinking become a gendered act? Mallory O’Meara, the author of 2019’s excellent The Lady from the Black Lagoon, is back with Girly Drinks: A World History of Women and Alcohol, an ambitious, timely, and eminently readable chronicle of women’s history with alcohol, which answers not only that question, but a lot of others as well.
In a mere 15 chapters, 335 pages, O’Meara tells a tale that spans from pre-history to the modern day, documenting not only the development of the alcoholic beverage, but how women have, at every point in history, been critical to the development, making, marketing, sales, and distribution of alcohol in every culture on the planet. All while simultaneously being restricted, forbidden, taxed and imprisoned for doing so. Each chapter focuses on a specific era in history and on women whose stories illustrate their involvement with, or restrictions against, drinking. Some of the highlights include a 12th century mother superior who discovered that by adding hops to her beer it would remain fresher longer; Catherine the Great, who bribed soldiers with vodka to remove her husband from the throne; Barbe-Nicole Clicquot, who in the 19th century, almost single-handedly created the mystique and market for Champagne; Bessie Williamson, the First Lady of Scotch; and the development of “cocktail culture” in the 1950’s United States. All of this told in O’Meara’s strong but conversational voice.
O’Meara’s research is solid and her conclusions, including, “The double standard that drinking women face is deeply rooted in male anxieties about... women acting like people, not property,” are simultaneously timely and timeless.
Girly Drinks is a must read, as well as an interview with the author right here.