Women's Bars - Oral Histories

Gail McDougall talked about the initiation process many women went through on their first venture into a lesbian bar:

GAIL: “The first time, they usually had to be escorted by somebody who was known. I would usually take the person in and introduce them, and of course, they had to show I.D. to prove they were twenty-one. I was introduced by somebody who took me in the back door, because I was under twenty-one. I would suggest that they wear jeans and a flannel shirt – that was basically what most of them were wearing at that time, and until they decided what they wanted to be, I would make them dress butch.”
Gail McDougall, interview by NWLGHMP, tape recording, Seattle, WA, 24 July 1997.

In other oral histories we’ve conducted, it’s not uncommon to hear of women carrying their “butch” clothes in a bag or purse, and changing at the bar, rather than be seen in pubic. At the same time, it is important to be aware of the economic limits of women’s lives during the middle decades of the 20th century. With exceptions, women had less expendable income, and thus had different social patterns than men. In our research, for example, we’ve found that lesbian history often takes us away from the bars and into the private homes of women during the 1940s, 50s and 60s – in which personal networks of friends and lovers played a much more important role than public spaces such as taverns and bars. Obviously, these sorts of histories are more difficult to track, making the recovery of Seattle’s lesbian history all the more challenging and interesting. It also reminds us that not all gay men necessarily lived their lives in the world of bars and bathhouses.

Nonetheless, lesbians were part of the Pioneer Square scene during the postwar era, and did begin to create their own public spaces. In the middle to late 50s, for example, the Grand Union was located through an unmarked door under a street overpass. Sappho’s Tavern operated in Pioneer Square since the 1950s moving to Prefontaine Place in the 1970s. In the 1970s, as a result of the women’s rights movement and feminism, women’s spaces proliferated. The Greek Torch, and the Silver Slipper on the east edge of Pioneer Square, as well as spaces in the University District and Fremont neighborhoods, were often gathering places for lesbian feminists during the 1970s.

Mary Scott, Silver Slipper

The Silver Slipper at that time was on -- 210 South Jackson. So we went down there a lot -- for about a year or so. And there were still quite a few of the bar regulars, but it seems to me that the older women just kind of disappeared. I found out later that a lot of them just simply were overwhelmed. They just couldn’t understand or cope with all of this big influx of feminist, out, wild lesbians. A lot of them didn’t look or act like lesbians, and they weren’t into butch and femme. Or everybody looked butch. You couldn’t tell the butches from the femmes! ...

But a lot of the younger non-feminist bar regulars, who were roughly our age -- in their twenties and early thirties -- stayed, and [there was some] social pushing and shoving, so to speak, a period of adjustment on both sides. ...

The Slipper was a women’s bar. It was a lesbian bar. Occasionally a man would come in, but he would be a gay man. He was kind of an oddity, you know? He was there because maybe he knew one of the bartenders, or maybe he was a friend or a brother of a customer there that night, or whatever. He had a legitimate tie, and nobody really minded that. But every once in a while mixed couple would come in. And you could pretty well tell, after a while, whether the men had a legitimate reason for being there, or whether he was with a woman friend or wife -- and they were there looking for a lesbian to go home with them for perverse three-way kinds of [sex ?].

So when you would see a mixed couple zeroing in on a woman who was by herself and started buying her drinks, you knew what was going on. And other lesbians would move in to protect her, or they would try to intervene and either get her out -- if she was too drunk to get out -- somebody would take her either to her home or to their home, or to somewhere for the night. Or they would try to get the het couple to leave peaceably.

Or they would distract them, or as a last resort -- and I saw this happen more than once. Some lesbian would go to the bar and get a beer, and come back and stumble and go, “Whoops!” and dump a beer on the guy. “Oh, I’m so sorry! Oh -- spill over here! Somebody bring a rag!” And they would all pitch in and clean up, and then they would pack up and leave. And I saw that happen two or three times.

Mary Scott, interview by NWLGHMP, tape recording, Snohomish, WA, 12 May 2009.