Today in Feminist History: N.O.W. Sues Bar for Discrimination (June 24, 1969)

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.


June 24, 1969: As a result of being refused service at one of New York City’s “men only” bars in January, Faith Seidenberg and Karen DeCrow, members of the National Organization for Women, filed a Federal suit today.

PHOTO: Faith Seidenberg

They contend that being barred from McSorley’s Old Ale House solely on account of their sex is a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

The atmosphere inside the pub was even colder than the weather outside on that winter’s evening five months ago. A large bell was rung as an alarm when DeCrow and Seidenberg stepped in. The male patrons clapped and stomped their feet, while the waiters hooted. Both women sat quietly at a table and politely asked for service, but without success, with the refusals becoming increasingly hostile.

Finally, a sympathetic man at the bar tried to buy drinks for the women. Some of the patrons then picked him up and roughly threw him through the swinging doors and on to the curb, his head striking the doors in the process. Not wanting to be the cause of any more violence, the women left, determined to fight the issue out in court.

This is not the first bar or restaurant in the city to be targeted by N.O.W. for sex discrimination. On February 12, Betty Friedan and a few other women unsuccessfully tried to dine in the Oak Room of the Plaza Hotel, and were told women were not served there until 3 p.m. on days the stock exchange was open, and that the same rule applied to the adjoining Oak Room Bar.

The struggle for equal access to all public accommodations is going on nationwide, with plenty of other actions so far this year. On March 25, N.O.W. staged a sit-in at Trader Vic’s in Beverly Hills, California, protesting its prohibition on unaccompanied women drinking at the bar. The management’s assumption is that any woman not accompanied by a man is probably a prostitute intent on soliciting a customer, though management apparently doesn’t assume that unaccompanied men are there looking for prostitutes, because the bar is perfectly willing to serve them.

On March 8, N.O.W. members staged a sit-in at a bar in Colchester, Connecticut to protest a state law that prohibits women from being served liquor at a bar. On February 19, Los Angeles N.O.W. members Judith Meuli, Lana Phelan, Ruth Ehrlich and Ila Johnson staged a successful sit-in at the Beverly Hills Hotel’s Polo Lounge. Amid considerable press attention, they were served, so policies can change if publicly challenged.

Eliminating such forms of public accommodations discrimination has been a goal of N.O.W. from the beginning. On November 11, 1966—less than two weeks after its organizing conference—N.O.W. wrote a letter to Acting Attorney General Ramsey Clark, saying in part:

“Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination or segregation in places of public accommodation, should also be amended to prohibit such discrimination against women. Although sex discrimination in public accommodations has not been so widespread as race discrimination, it is more common than discrimination based on religion and national origin – both of which are specifically prohibited by Title II. The exclusion of women from numerous public restaurants, for example, continues as an insult to women and a handicap to their participation in the business world.”

Today, one more salvo against blatant discrimination was launched, as the battle for equal access continues!


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About

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.