August 17, 2023.
If you thought that, throughout its history, gambling was a gentleman’s game, the casino floor was a female-free zone, and the parlor was reserved for pants, politics and poker, you wouldn’t be entirely on the money… but you would have a good case.
Sure, men are more likely to gamble, especially with higher stakes. Mountains of data back that up, but you’d only need to walk into any land-based casino ready to count!
But despite the male dominance, a small but strong cohort of women managed to get a foothold in the casino scene, too, not only maintaining a consistent presence but growing in influence and number over time.
Find yourself a comfy spot, and get ready to go on a journey from the distant past through to the here-and-now, as we see how women in gambling have shaped the casino industry, from those hidden back rooms to the fine, leather executive chairs.
Fortuna, the Goddess of Luck & Fortune
The concepts of luck and fortune have both fascinated and confounded societies throughout human history. The question was and always has been pertinent: when giving over control to forces unseen, why do some people win, and others draw the short straw? In times of simple cause and effect, a cause obviously existed.
In ancient Rome, the answer was easy: those who won in their gambling pursuits had the blessings of Fortuna, the ancient goddess of luck and fortune. If femininity had no place making a wager, then it at least pulled the strings to pick winners.
The noble goddess was appropriately imagined as blindfolded for impartiality, with a cornucopia of riches spilling over for anyone who pleased her. Temples were erected in her honor, and anyone looking for an extra nudge of fortune lined up to sing her praises and hope for her favorable gaze.
Fortuna is not only a name to be revered in ancient history, mind you: to this day, terms like “Lady Luck” or “rolling the dice” allude to Fortuna’s influence that has endured over time.
An Age of Restriction: Women Gambling in the 1800s
In the 1800s, gambling was very much a man’s sport and women’s participation in the rough and rowdy gambling scene was frowned upon.
But where there’s a will, and there’s a woman, there’s a way.
Women in the higher echelons of society were usually permitted to engage in informal gambling within private settings, playing card games or placing bets on horse races. As long as it was behind closed doors, it wasn’t a particular threat to the social fragility of the era’s male ego and gender norms of the time.
Then, of course, there was the Wild West, where the rule was that rules were there to be broken. A rugged frontier lifestyle helped to shatter the status quo. Saloons and gaming houses opened their doors to a number of wise or wily women, like Poker Alice, even employing them as dealers.
Nevertheless, they endured a heavy social stigma as they pushed the boundaries of women in gambling. That didn’t change until the late 19th century and early 20th century when they gained more rights thanks to movements like the women’s suffrage. More and more, women were granted the right to openly join the boys’ table and show their cards.
Women and Modern Casinos
How times change!
As social norms evolved over the 20th century, women, in general, gained more freedom and opportunities to explore their talents in gambling. They also started making their own money, and with their own income, were more welcomed in the casinos.
Now, women in gambling weren’t just playing, but also climbing the ladders of power in some of the best casino cities in the world, and naturally, it was Las Vegas and Reno who were among the first cities to hire them.
Initially, women strictly held roles in entertainment in Vegas, before being trained as dealers in 1971; Shirley Brancucci was the first female baccarat dealer in the ‘70s. Within no time, however, Sin City diversified its casino experience along with its attraction for women to play.
Nowadays it’s considered fair game for all women to participate in any type of gambling game at a casino, but it’s still undeniably a male-dominated pursuit.
That said, some women in casinos have managed to break into the gambling scene to become some of the highest-earning players of modern times.
Famous Women in Gambling Today
Some of the best card players of our time are women.
Vanessa Selbst has three World Series of Poker (WSOP) bracelets on her wrist and more than $11.8 million in career earnings.
Jennifer Harman is a respected veteran in the poker world, known for her cash-game skills that helped earn her two WSOP bracelets over a successful career spanning decades.
Alice Walker, otherwise known as “The Blackjack Ballroom Babe,” was the first female blackjack player to win the World Series of Blackjack in 2007 for a price of half a million dollars.
And those are just the literal cardholders.
Other influential women in the gambling scene – casino executives such as Elaine Wynn, who co-founded the Mirage and Wynn Resorts in Las Vegas, and co-chairperson and executive director of MGM China, Pansy Ho – took their talents straight to the top of the industry and cemented their places in the business world. In fact, powerful women, including women of color, were at one time running some of the most successful casinos in Atlantic City.
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