Drinking cultures change in tandem with wider social, cultural and economic transformations. In what follows, I draw on research conducted for my PhD thesis to explore this idea through the example of changes in young women’s experiences with alcohol and pub culture in post-war and contemporary Britain.
The thesis explores the place of alcohol in the day-to-day lives of 38 women born between 1939 and 1995 from working class and middle class backgrounds. Life history interviews, several of which drew on the techniques of photo and object elicitation to anchor and enrich the accounts provided, were conducted with women to construct their ‘drinking biographies’, that is, their narrative accounts of their experiences and understandings of alcohol starting with childhood and ending in the present day. The inclusion of participants from different birth cohorts allowed for qualified, contextualised comparisons to be drawn across generations, as well as for an exploration of some differences across social classes. The research design enabled me, in a dialogue with participants, to construct accounts of how ways of accessing, experiencing and evaluating alcohol shifted as women grew older, a topic that has thus far been largely neglected in existing research. Rather than focusing on women’s relationships at a fixed moment of historical time, the research sought to animate women’s negotiations with alcohol by exploring these across shifting socio-historical contexts as well as biographies. I found that women have complex personal and collective histories with alcohol; multiple meanings accrue over historical, as well as over biographical, time.
Tracing changes across generations also meant tracing wider changes across the historical contexts in which members of different generations navigated the life course. At present, limited research exists on women’s drinking during the post-war period. Langhamer (2003, p. 437) suggestively states toward the end of her article on women’s drinking on the home front during the Second World War that in “the 1960s and 1970s the public house became a mainstay for the young in their leisure hours and began to make real and lasting inroads into young women’s cultural lives.” However, Gutzke (2014, p. 64) claims that the unwelcoming atmosphere of most post-war pubs and sexist advertising by breweries meant that most women avoided the pub. He uses data from market research to hypothesise that the wartime experience had the opposite effect on women’s pub-going than that suggested by Langhamer: “Instead of predisposing women, especially young ones, towards drinking in pubs, the war had an ironic opposite effect: it ingrained deep hostility in many juvenile and young women to ever frequenting drink premises thereafter” (p. 64). According to Gutzke, women’s use of licensed premises began to increase slowly from the mid-1970s, first with the introduction of wine bars and later with the advent of pub companies (e.g. Pitcher and Piano, J.D. Wetherspoon), both of which sought to attract female customers.
While my research design does not allow for generalizable conclusions, my study provides some provisional support for Gutzke’s identification of the 1970s as a turning point in the social accessibility of alcohol and increased opportunities for women’s drinking in licensed premises. The women in my study who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s had limited experience of drinking as young women. When they ventured into pubs for the first time in their late teens, they tended to be in the company of men. Going to pubs or accessing alcohol elsewhere was not narrated having been a priority. Pubs were typically associated with men of their fathers’ and grandfathers’ generations, and were generally not viewed as desirable places to socialise with friends, beyond the occasional ‘double date’. They spoke instead of spending their ‘free time’ participating in a wide range of leisure activities – from trips with youth clubs, to roller skating, to meeting up with friends at dance halls. When alcohol was present on such occasions, it was described as peripheral to the main activity. In addition to having access to wider forms of leisure, a lower school leaving age and pressures to contribute to the household economy from the age of 15 meant that they took on some of the responsibilities associated with adulthood at a younger age than those born in later decades. I argue that accessing adulthood through the consumption of drink and its spaces was perhaps less appealing for these women because adulthood signified responsibility.
By contrast, encountering and experimenting with alcohol as a teenager was an almost universal experience for women in the study who were born after 1960 (n= 28). For these participants, gaining access to alcohol and the spaces in which it was consumed were part of their attempts to ‘pass’ as older, and to push away from their own and other’s images of themselves as children. As 14 and 15 year old girls on the threshold of young adulthood, considerable effort was invested in procuring fake identification and working up a presentation of self through styling hair, applying make-up and appropriating the fashion choices of young adult women in order to gain entry into pubs, bars and nightclubs. Here, a chief attraction was the atmosphere of such places, as well as the alcohol itself. Alcohol was also sought from parents’ cupboards and off-licenses, often for consumption in parks and alleyways or at the house of a friend with ‘easy going’ parents. In these accounts, drinking was narrated as pleasurable and as enabling one to act ‘silly’ without fear of judgement. Attempts to access alcohol and the spaces in which it is was consumed were simultaneously attempts to temporarily access the perceived glamour, sophistication and independence associated with being a young adult.
Returning to the wider question of how and why drinking cultures change, developments within the alcohol and hospitality industries described by Guzke (2014) were clearly important in providing a context in which increased numbers of young women sought access to licensed premises. However, so were changes in the cultural meaning and socio-economic organisation of the transition from childhood to adulthood, and crucially the place of alcohol in the negotiation of ‘growing up.’
Laura Fenton is Lecturer in Sociology and a member of the Morgan Centre for Research into Everyday Lives at the University of Manchester. Her research interests include the sociology of everyday life, gender, alcohol and creative qualitative methods. Laura has published articles and reviews in a number of social science journals, including Women’s History Review and Space and Culture. She convenes the British Sociological Association’s Alcohol Study Group, and is Social Media Officer for the Drinking Studies Network.
Gutzke, D. W. (2014). Women drinking out in Britain since the early twentieth century. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Langhamer, C. (2003). ‘“A public house is for all classes, men and women alike”: gender, leisure, and drink in Second World War England’. Women’s History Review, 12 (3), pp. 423- 443.