Can A Pub Be Feminist? These Female Entrepreneurs Say Yes

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Angelo Pennetta

Do you remember the “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like” T-shirts? You could be forgiven for forgetting; they were, in feminism as well as fashion years, a lifetime ago. Yet, when worn (as they were frequently at the time) by men, women and non-binary people, they had the merit of illustrating a concept many struggle with: namely, that feminism is for everyone.

It means, at its most fundamental, women having the same rights as men – and it means all women, not just the white, straight and educated ones. The principle isn’t hard to grasp, but the practice often gets lost in translation, particularly when applied to ideas and institutions which have historically been male-led.

Step forward, The Flowerhouse: a female-led pub in Marylebone which has fallen prey to numerous misunderstandings since it opened in November last year. From the outside, it is ostensibly a pub, dating back to the 19th century. Step inside, however, and – well, it’s still a pub, but there’s something unusual about it, something distinctly feminine.

The exterior of The Flowerhouse in Marylebone.


The wallpaper is floral. The walls are pink. The wooden tables, lamps and menu are all lighter. It’s not overbearing, but it does reveal just how inherently masculine our definition of “a good pub” has become. Like James Bond, the great British pub has been male-dominated for such a long time, their qualities seem inextricably linked. Yet, just as 2021 saw Daniel Craig challenge our Bond-shaped pre-conceptions, so it saw women like Jo Jackson of The Flowerhouse and Josephine Savry of The Rose & Crown in Clapham take on old boozers and transform them into something more diverse.

Contrary to what a few clickbait-style headlines have suggested, The Flowerhouse is not the first female-led pub. Nor is it exclusively female. “I founded this with my business partner and my husband,” says Jackson. “We’re aiming for a balance of 70:30 female to male for staff members.” Her first objective in founding The Flowerhouse was to address the fact that there aren’t more women in the hospitality industry, and the reasons behind that: working hours, working culture and stigma. Their second was safety: to engage women or indeed anyone who has ever felt intimidated by a pub’s atmosphere or clientele.

There are the obvious turn offs: lads’ “banter”; drunk football fans; hostile regulars staking out “their” bar stools like grizzly bears. Yet there’s also the more insidious “micro-cues” signposting masculinity. In redesigning their venues, both Jackson and Savry asked themselves, “What are the reasons women don’t want to come in and have a drink on their own?”

Floral wallpaper inside The Flowerhouse.


“Is it the dark corners? It is the food and drink offering? Is it the lack of women behind the bar?” Jackson continues. “All these things add up to create a more classically male environment – and by extension, one that can feel hostile.” Before its refurbishment, The Rose & Crown had around seven regulars who sat in the same seats at the bar day in, day out. “They had to have their seat,” says Sarvy, “and if someone new came in, they’d turn and glare. I’d see women step through the door and just walk out again.” Though today a light, bright space not dissimilar to The Flowerhouse, with an extensive menu boasting panfried hake as well as steak-and-ale pie, when Sarvy first took over, it was a traditional boozer.

“There was a definite air of, ‘She doesn’t know what she’s doing. Why is a woman running our pub?’” she recalls. “But I needed to save money to refurbish it – so I ran it as a boozer while I did my planning application.” With time and redesign, perceptions have shifted. Regulars still come, but they are more respectful. The chanting has disappeared – “We are not a football pub. If people start chanting I’ll threaten to take their beer away, and they respect that” says Rosannah Cherrill, Sarvy’s kind, straight-talking assistant general manager – and the bar stools are as likely to be occupied by couples and women as they are solo men.

An elegant dish at The Rose & Crown.

I consider the sage-green walls, the leather banquettes and the drinks list, which includes a host of non-alcoholic options as well as wines and cocktails. I would certainly come here for a drink on my own, and there aren’t many pubs I could honestly say that of. Wine and cocktail bars, yes – but there’s something particularly, well, male, about going to the pub solo, conjuring up as it does images of nursing a pint over the Sports section. When Jackson was creating The Flowerhouse, it was with this imbalance in mind. “My dad used to go to the pub all the time for a quiet moment. I wanted to create a space where women could do that without fear of being judged or approached by people.” The fact that women already come into The Flowerhouse with their books, and that one woman who works nearby “comes in a couple of times a week for a glass of prosecco at the bar”, is a heartening sign.

Yet feminism isn’t just about young female professionals – and isn’t just about the women in front of the bar, either. “The Flowerhouse is about encouraging women of all ages and life stages not just into our bar, but into the jobs behind it,” Jackson affirms. That means flexible working hours for mothers; apprentice schemes for young women; and, further down the line, reaching out to women who are older. If this goes well, Jackson hopes to open similar pubs in rural areas, too. She draws on the example of her parents, who live “in a complex of flats in which there are lots of single women in their 60s and 70s. They aren’t fully retired, and they are sociable and active. They would love to do a job where they got to know people – and this is a sociable, easy job that isn’t stacking shelves.”

The Rose & Crown has been equally intent on expanding horizons when it comes to the people that pubs cater for and employ. Since reopening post-refurbishment, they’ve hosted everything from first dates to big weddings, 80th birthdays to netball socials. Each Sunday sees a group of men visit them for lunch prior to the drag night at the Two Brewers on Clapham High Street. “We have chosen specifically to encourage inclusivity,” explains Sarvy. “There’s paintings from a British African artist, shots of Elton John on the wall, a cocktail menu – which we got a lot of flack for, but we want that slice of the market. I didn’t want to change the name of the pub, or the building. I wanted to take something that had been here since 1870 and ensure it remained in the future.”

The light-filled dining room in Clapham Old Town.

Daniel Ogulewicz

To do that, Sarvy knew she’d need a pub “that reflects London as it is now” – and she’s right, I think. Why should a pint necessitate a trip to the 19th century? As much as the collective idea of “a good pub” is bound up with maleness, so it is with nostalgia, with dark wood, vintage maps, portraits of feathered game and other relics of an age in which pubs often insisted upon separating women from men – if they welcomed them at all, which was by no means a given. It’s a far cry from the pub Sarvy and Cherril are hoping The Rose & Crown to be – somewhere “people from all walks of life can come together and mingle”, says Sarvy. Sure, they’re serving spicy margs and there’s vases of fresh flowers on each table, “but what anchors us to being a proper pub is the fact anybody can just walk in and feel at home”.

The attention Sarvy and Jackson have paid to their décor and menus shows it takes more than a woman pulling pints to make a pub universally welcoming. If there’s one thing these owners share, it’s their holistic approach. Both have tried to support female-led businesses where possible; care deeply about their staff and their wellbeing; and have developed the sort of relationship with their regulars we would all like to have with our local publican. “People talk to us, about all sorts of things. We know the scoop about their lives,” Sarvy smiles. Both The Flowerhouse and The Rose & Crown look to show sport in such a way that everyone can enjoy: “a bit more gender-neutral, that doesn’t encourage lary behaviour”, says Jackson.

I ask Jackson if she feels a sense of connection to landladies of times gone by, and she smiles. “I have definitely been partly inspired by Babs Windsor, and the happy banter associated with that environment.” Yet there is a difference, she continues, between being a landlady, and being a woman who owns (or co-owns, in her case) a pub. The former might encourage a few more female guests and engender a slightly less laddish environment, yet does nothing to address the long-term, structural inequalities that exist within hospitality in general, and pubs in particular. “I wanted to bring that [Babs Windsor] vibe into the 21st century,” she continues. “I wanted to start from scratch, and take on the imbalances within the industry.” I’ve seen what a feminist pub looks like. I think, as I cycle home after visiting the The Rose & Crown and The Flowerhouse; it looks like a really good pub.

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