The State Where Women Could Drink at 18 and Men Had to Wait

Illustration for article titled The State Where Women Could Drink at 18 and Men Had to Wait

If you were an 18-year-old woman living in Illinois between the end of prohibition and 1961, you were legally free to enter a bar and order the drink of your choosing. If you were an 18-year-old man, you would not be afforded the same right.


Until the early sixties, Illinois existed as the only state in the union allowing women to drink alcohol before men. While women could legally start drinking at 18, men had to wait until they were 21.

“The premise behind the old laws had been that women matured faster than men, and perhaps married younger than men,” State University of New York at Genesco professor Joy Getnick (who has studied drinking age) told The Atlantic’s Olga Khazan. “By 1961 those views had changed. Women matured (or didn’t) similarly to men, and there were growing concerns about younger women buying older (but still not yet legal) men drinks, and all of the social (and legal) problems that went with that.”


The Illinois drinking age law was widely resented by men who didn’t think it was fair—both because they wanted to get sloshed, too, and because they didn’t want their girlfriends going out without them. From a 1948 editorial in the Chicago Tribune:

A married man under 21, alone or accompanied by his wife or others, may not be served intoxicating beverages ... A law that tells girls they can start their public liquor drinking at 18, and tells boys they must wait three years, places boys in the embarrassing position of trying to persuade their girl friends not to frequent taverns until they (the boys) are old enough to accompany them.

If you were an 18-year-old woman, it was actually a pretty good deal. Not only did you get to go out for drinks, but you also got to avoid annoying 18-year-old dudes.

In 1961, the law was changed so that no one—man or woman—under the age of 21 would be served alcohol. Not everyone was happy with this arrangement. Khazan writes:

...A 19-year-old woman named Virginia Wantroba filed suit, saying the new restriction infringed on her right to have the occasional frothy afternoon cocktail. (Her boss, it’s worth noting, was the attorney for the state’s Beverage Dealer’s Association.) You’ve got to fight, as they say, for your right to party.


You said it, sister.

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Image via Bugsy Malone/Paramount.

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So I know it may have been presented as “women mature faster” but doesn’t this all sound too much that the men making the laws wanted 18-year-olds in their bars to pick up?

Yeah... I’m probably not gonna side with the idea that old, rich, male lawmakers were really doing this as a favor to women...