A Brief (and Troubled) History of Women and Drink.

April 1, 2018

Photo from:  http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/drunk.htm


As women, the world of alcohol has been both our domain and denied to us. Our skills alternately sought after and suppressed. Our participation valued and then prohibited. Our creations our undoing. Its been a classic case of One sip forward, two sips back.


Some big sips forward:


Women were going strong in the beginning! Sumerian Women invented beer 6000 years ago¹. It may have been non-alcoholic, but it was a start. Sometime between then and Egyptian beer, Yeast sneaked into the mix, turning the sugars into alcohol. This was just a happy accident and not a woman’s idea, but since the Egyptian Goddess Hathor was known as “the inventress of brewing” ² we’ll happily take credit. Tupputi, who was the real human lady overseer of the Babylon Palace around 1200 BC, invented distillation techniques to create perfume⁴. Ancient history seems to indicate that In these early days women were largely treated as equals, but that was all about to change.


Two sips back:


Things really started slipping with Greek society, where for the most part (though there were exceptions across different parts of Greek culture) women were considered inferior to men, possessed few rights, and were often hidden away. Though it does seem they could participate in the drinking culture of their time. It was with the Romans that the situation got rough for the ladies. Roman women were mostly forbidden from drinking, or even being near, alcohol. The punishments for disregarding the law were severe, and could include death³

And then… the “dark” ages. In Europe, women were relegated to practicing crafts related to creating alcohol only in their homes, and only in secret.


One sip forward!


While back in Roman times women were being denied participation in all things boozy, German, Viking, and Nordic women were part of their societies drinking culture⁶. In Peru there is indication that it was women who made the sacred alcoholic beverage “Chicha”⁷.

And then while the “dark age” women in Europe were hiding their crafts from prying eyes, women in China (where no such dark age was fallen into) were making use of distillation in their practice of alchemy.

By the middle ages Europe started catching up with China. Women were taking on roles in different aspects of alcohol production. In the mid-1400s 30% of the London Brewers Guild was female. Women were very often the proprietresses of apothecaries, distilling medicines from many different ingredients, and adding herbs, spices, flowers and such to treat maladies.


Backward again!


In the mid-1500s witchcraft mania hit. Female brewers and distillers were often accused, and laws banning women from making alcohol spread across Europe. Their numbers dwindled, to the point that alcohol production was almost exclusively the realm of men.


Forward again!


In Europe it wasn’t until the 1800s that women started to become really involved in alcohol production again. Often through the death of a Husband or Father a woman would become the owner of a brewery, distillery, or winery.


Sip back:


While women were again becoming involved in alcohol production in the 1800s, their presence in bars was forbidden due to both social mores and actual laws across Europe and the States. In the US laws stopping women from bartending were not just in effect but being enforced through the 1960s.


One sip forward:


Yay women’s rights! The crusaders of the 1960s and 70s got the laws changed, and women now get to bartend, brew, and distill to their hearts content. Cheers Ladies! Let’s be on the look-out to prevent future steps in any direction but forward.



This post relied heavily on Fred Minnick’s book “Whiskey Women” published by the University of Nebraska’s Potomac Books in 2013. I highly recommend it to history buffs, women’s rights crusaders, and boozehounds, and anybody else who just flat out enjoys a good read.

¹Cuneiform, 4000 BC, from the excavation at Tep Gawra, northern Iraq, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

²Minnick, Fred “Whiskey Women” University of Nebraska, Potomac Books, 2013, pg2

³Winter, Bruce W. “Roman Wives, Roman Widows” Michigan, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, p152

⁴Rayner-Canham and Rayner-Canham “Women in Chemistry” pg 1

⁵Murcia, Francisco Javier “Wine, Women, and Wisdom: The Symposia of Ancient Greece”

⁶Jochens, “Women in Old Norse Society” pg 107

⁷M. E. Moseley, D. J. Nash, P. R. Williams, S. D. DeFrance, A. Miranda, and M. Ruales, “Burning Sown the Brewery: Establishing and Evacuating an Ancient Imperial Colony at Cerro Baul, Peru,” Proceedings of -the National Academy of Sciences, 102, no. 48 (November 29, 2005):17264-71.

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