Today in Feminist History: Eleanor Holmes Norton Takes on New York City Sexism

Today in Feminist History is our daily recap of the major milestones and minor advancements that shaped women’s history in the U.S.—from suffrage to Shirley Chisholm and beyond. These posts were written by, and are presented in homage to, our late staff historian and archivist, David Dismore.

January 14, 1971: Today the battle to end sex discrimination in public places moved to New York City’s Commission On Human Rights.

The battle to ban sex discrimination in New York City’s places of public accommodation appeared to have concluded on August 10th of last year when Mayor Lindsay signed a law outlawing sex bias in such businesses—but just hours later, when a patron at McSorley’s Old Ale House poured a stein of beer over the head of NOW member Lucy Komisar as she defied the bar’s 116-year male-only tradition, it became obvious that there would be some resistance to the new law and a few more skirmishes to fight.

The Commission was given authority under the new law to grant exemptions, and decide where distinctions between men and women made by businesses could be endorsed as a valid reflection of practicality, and are compatible with modern values, and which policies are simply sexist relics of a bygone age and should be considered illegal under the new law. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who chairs the Commission, called on members of the business community and the public to make their views known, and quite a few did so.

Eleanor Holmes Norton.

Norton prefaced the testimony by noting that she thought places where the patrons generally disrobe—bathrooms, locker rooms, showers, steam baths and saunas—could easily be distinguished from bars, restaurants and grills when deciding on exemptions. But that still left room for inquiries about how, or whether, the new law should be applied in a number of specific situations.

Frank McGinnis, office manager of the New York Mets, wanted permission for the team to continue its “time-honored tradition” of having “Ladies’ Day” eight Saturdays a year, at which time women are admitted for 50 cents instead of the usual $1.50. “It brings in the ladies and it’s good business,” he said. 

Hotels were ably represented, and spoke in favor of their desire to exercise discretion. Interestingly, it was a plea for permission to exclude men that was made first. John H. Sherry, attorney for the Barbizon Hotel for Women said: “Males would completely destroy the character of the house as a home for women.” Herbert Gundrun, who represents the N.H. Lyons Company, which runs 15 flophouses in the Bowery, where patrons pay $1.50 a night for a cot in a dormitory, said that because their hotels tended to attract “alcoholics, addicts and other disorderly men,” they were “not a suitable place for women.” 

Richard Berry, attorney for the Hotel Association of New York, spoke to an issue that has been the object of sit-ins and picketing by the National Organization for Women all over the country. He wanted permission for the Association’s 186 hotels to continue to exclude unescorted women, but not lone men, from the bar area as a “policy of public safety.” He claimed this practice cuts down on prostitution and any assaults and robberies that might follow.

Why every unaccompanied woman who wants a drink at a bar should be presumed to be a prostitute, while an unaccompanied man who wants a drink should not be presumed to be someone looking for a prostitute, and similarly banned, was not explained.

By the end of the testimony, panel members had acknowledged that there were legitimate issues to be considered, and that sexism wasn’t as simple to address as racism. Preston David, Executive Director of the Commission, said: “If we were talking about black and white, not male and female, the answer would be absolute and definite. But we’re not.”

According to Norton: “Where do we have obligations to permit a legal differentiation between the sexes? To what extent should we protect a certain life-style, like the one that exists at the Barbizon? Or allow a pleasant tradition like ‘Ladies’ Day’ to continue?”

The Commission will take several months to reach its decisions, so the distinguished panel will have sufficient time to make wise rulings.


David Dismore is the archivist for the Feminist Majority Foundation. His journey from would-be weather forecaster to full-time feminist began with the powerful impression made by a photo and a few paragraphs about the suffragists in his high school history textbook; years later, he had his first encounter with NOW—in which he carefully peeked in a window before opening the door to be sure men were allowed. He was eventually active in the ERA extension campaign of 1978, embarked on a cross-country bikeathon for it in 1982 and even worked for pioneers Toni Carabillo and Judith Meuli.