Goesaert v. Cleary: Barmaids and the Fourteenth Amendment

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As with many professions during the second World War, women took the place of men in bartending among many others. After men returned from the war, they demanded that women leave their positions and return to what they thought was the best position for a women in society: being a housewife. It is obvious with the gender norms of the time that women bartenders would be seen as taboo and was not encouraged after the war, women could not even join the Bartenders’ Union because accepting a woman would mean, “to imply that the industry has accepted barmaids as a permanent fixture. This is not true” (French 28).

Since men wanted to monopolize the trade, the Bartenders’ Union lobbied for an amendment to the Liquor Control Act of 1933. In 1945, the act prohibited women from bartending unless it was in an establishment that was owned by their husband or father (French 28-29). This law was claimed to have been passed to protect public welfare and to protect women. This, like many other laws, was not actually made to protect women, but to control them. It was inconceivable at that time to believe that women knew what may be best for them instead of men.

The law only barred women from being bartenders, not waitresses in bars, many women argued that being behind a bar felt safer because that way they did not have to deal with much of the unwanted touching or pinching that waitresses dealt with. This is another example of gender norms of the time, men believing that they know what is best for women and touching women as they please because they are seen as less then human. Not to say that this does not occur today, but it is not nearly as common or socially acceptable, society has come a long way but it also has quite a ways to go.

Michigan’s Bartending Act prompted the case of Goesaert v. Cleary of 1948. The case was taken to the Supreme Court after the law was affirmed by the Michigan Eastern District Court where they were represented by Anne Davidow. She argued that the act ousted female bar owners from behind their own bars and they had to hire male bar tenders to do a job they could do just as well and paying a man to bartend when it was not actually needed would decrease profitability (French 37). Michigan barmaids fought to dismantle the idea that men had to be breadwinners and that the only job suited for a woman was a housewife.

The Supreme Court validated the Bartending Act because it was rationalized that since women do not have any federal right to work in any occupation that they chose, the law was not discriminatory (French 42).  Even though the plaintiffs lost in this trial, the barmaids still fought for change and women kept the law on the minds’ of legislators through continuous agitating. After another loss in the case of Nephew v. Liquor Control Commission in 1953 and a decade of continued pressure on lawmakers, the law was repealed in 1955. This was a huge victory for barmaids and female bar owners because with changing laws came changes in the ways that society viewed bartending as a man’s position.


French, Amy Holtman. “Mixing it Up: Michigan Barmaids Fight for Civil Rights,” Michigan Historical Review, Vol. 40 No. 1 (Spring 2014). pp. 27-48.

8 thoughts on “Goesaert v. Cleary: Barmaids and the Fourteenth Amendment

    1. Agreed! It’s crazy what a paradoxical problem they had when one of the primary justifications for the gender discriminating laws was for the “protection of the weaker sex” from drunks and violence that may occur in the bar, when it was the drunken men themselves who would’ve been inflicting such violence and sloppy behavior. Like Danielle noted, “many women argued that being behind a bar felt safer because that way they did not have to deal with much of the unwanted touching or pinching that waitresses dealt with.” It’s sad that society was more eager to blame women and limit them for the sake of so-called protection, instead of addressing the behavioral issues at the root of the problem. I understand the value of having a physically strong individual to enforce order when chaos arises, but I don’t see how such a simple notion could’ve been used to justify such inequality in the work place.

  1. “This, like many other laws, was not actually made to protect women, but to control them.” Exactly what I thought when I first read this! Even though there were perhaps some good intentions behind the court’s decision (very little, if any), this law hindered female advancement in society more than anything. Women finally had an opportunity to abandon their roles as housewives and incorporate themselves into the workforce, which unfortunately didn’t last long after WWII ended. However, what annoyed me most about this lawsuit was that the court ignored the fact that men harassing women was normalized; women wouldn’t have much to worry about as bartenders if men were taught at a young age to respect women. Rather than removing women from these situations that could turn ugly, I think the court should have re-examined the roles men had in that society and sought to change these norms. Let’s change men’s behavior before deciding whether women are meant to be bartenders, is something I would have said. I realize that this statement or any like it would not have gotten far in the ’40s, but it’s ridiculous that nobody questioned whether it was acceptable for men to abuse women in private or public, and instead, the vast majority of individuals assigned to this case questioning the validity of women being bartenders. It’s hard not to get frustrated while reading these excerpts!

    1. I 100% agree on how frustrating some of these reads and excerpts were to get through! And although I also agree that men should be taught off the bat to be respectful human beings as women are, I don’t think that was actually feasible in that time period. If you take into account how for centuries men were completely in charge of government, religion, households, etc. why would they encourage other men and boys to respect women or to hold them as their equals if they were in the business of maintaining power and control. I feel as though women forcing their way through the doors of businesses and taking power little by little was the only way to change how they were treated by men. They needed some sort of power, even if just a little, to be able to command respect and have it mean anything. And now that our society is more equal, we are able to raise children to respect each other and respect life and that none of them are better or more impactful than any others, regardless of sex and other differences.

      1. I agree with everything that has been said here. The norms of men in society in that time period completely shaped the way that women had to look out for themselves. For women to be scared for their safety as being a waitress had to of set off red flags somewhere, to someone in charge. Most likely that someone in charge happens to be male, and nothing gets changed. I’m not saying that all men at that time were completely treating women poorly, but it seems to be the highlight of it.

    2. I fully agree with you! The fact that there were so many blind eyes to this type of harassment is truly sad. It makes you wonder just how much abuse went on, both in public and in private, during that time period when women were often ignored or silenced. The fact that women bartenders felt safer when they were blockaded away from men who would touch them is so upsetting, and I wish there were ways that those women could have stood up for themselves without having to face repurcussions in their close-minded and male dominated society.

      1. My fist thought was exactly like yours when I read this, that women had to go through being threatened while doing a simple task like bartending. Women today including myself still have to face these fears everyday of even walking to your car from the grocery store, “I have to hurry before a man comes and kidnaps me” at night or something of the sort. It is extremely sad that they were scared that they might be touched by these men.

  2. I really liked how you pointed out in your post how men felt as if they were empowered by women to be able to touch them and have them do whatever they wanted with no consequences even if it was in a public setting like bartending or waitressing. I think men today still feel that thought in their minds in certain situations and that’s why we have issues like rape or sexual assault. Now-a-days things like liquor is involved and makes it worse for women, not that liquor wasn’t an issue then by just more now. Your post was very insightful!

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