Today in 1982, El Vino, a traditional Fleet Street bar, lifted its ban on two women who successfully challenged its policy of not allowing women to stand with male colleagues at the bar
For years, women journalists knew their place at El Vino: banished to a back room away from the bar, where they waited patiently for table service. By way of defence, El Vino claimed that they were doing their female customers a favour by upholding "old-fashioned ideas of chivalry." Any woman who dared to question the house rules risked being bawled at by the famously fierce bar manager and even barred.
All this changed in November 1982, when solicitor Tess Gill and journalist Anna Coote struck a blow for equality by winning their case against El Vino in the Court of Appeal. One of the judges, Lord Justice Griffiths, said that El Vino's popularity amongst journalists made it one of the famous "gossip shops of Fleet Street," and confining women reporters to the tables put them at a special disadvantage in "picking up gossip of the day." Several days after the verdict, El Vino lifted the lifetime ban it had imposed on the two women.
By winning, not only had the plaintiffs breached the male citadel of El Vino, they startled an industry dominated by newsmen. The El Vino case also proved that the Sex Discrimination Act - passed just a few years earlier in 1975 - could be a potent weapon against inequality.
Why the victory meant so much to the women says much about the importance El Vino once had as a meeting place for exalted editors, humble hacks and lawyers. Sometimes unruly, it had its own charm and hosted many a legendary lunchtime session.
The ban on women standing at the bar was thought to date back to the second world war and was apparently instituted to prevent unescorted women of ill repute from picking up customers. What is for sure is that the character of the place was imposed by the owner and 'prime vintner of Fleet Street', Frank Bower, who reputedly had quite puritanical views about women at the bar. He also imposed a strict dress code of jacket, collar and tie for men.
Even in 1970, when the rest of the world was moving towards equality, El Vino stubbornly stuck to its rules. That summer, a group of female journalists marched through its front door and demanded to be served at the bar. "Our money is equal so our rights must be equal," said Mavis Davidson, a reporter on the Sun, before they were sent back through the doors. Later, some in Fleet Street mocked their protests as a 'storm in a sherry glass'.
It was Sheila Gray, a photographer on the Morning Star, who sparked wider interest in the women's battle with El Vino. On the same day that the much publicised Sex Discrimination Act came into force in December 1975, Gray was refused at the bar. With the backing of the Equal Opportunities Commission, she tried to sue El Vino under the new act, her lawyer arguing that the bar operated a "petty apartheid". Westminster County Court saw things differently and ruled against Gray.
Though her actions drew some sympathy not everyone rallied to the cause - this 1976 letter from a female Guardian reader accused the protestors of trivialising the hard work that went into getting the new law passed.
As the dispute entered a new decade, El Vino had fought off at least three legal challenges, leading to doubts about the effectiveness of the Sex Discrimination Act. The only real hope for the women fell to Tess Gill and Anna Coote, who had previously lost their case at Mayor's and City of London Court. Despite this setback, they took their case to the Court of Appeal and finally won.
In Fleet Street, the women's victory was greeted by cheers, even by men. Women who were once prevented from buying their own drinks whilst standing at the bar rushed to El Vino to celebrate a hard fought win, leading one exasperated bartender to exclaim, "There are more women at the bar than men - it's chaos."