Advance Notice: Briefs

On this day in 1948: High court affirms Michigan ban on women bartenders  

By: - December 20, 2021 9:04 am

Wanda Naismith, a Detroit-area woman bartender in 1946 | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

On Dec. 20, 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a ban on female bartenders in Michigan.

Goesaert v. Cleary was a case in which the high court upheld a Michigan law prohibiting women from being licensed as a bartender in all cities having a population of 50,000 or more unless their father or husband owned the establishment.

Two female bartenders challenged the law. They requested an injunction against its enforcement on the grounds that it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The plaintiffs were Valentine Goesaert, a Dearborn bar owner; her daughter, Margaret; Carolyn McMahon, another bar owner; and Gertrude Nadrowski, a barmaid. They sued the Michigan Liquor Control Commission and Chair Owen Cleary.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan rejected the bartenders’ claim. And in a 6-3 opinion authored by Justice Felix Frankfurter, the high court upheld the lower court decision and concluded that the Constitution “does not preclude the States from drawing a sharp line between the sexes” or “to reflect sociological insight, or shifting social standards, any more than it requires them to keep abreast of the latest scientific standards.”

Frankfurter, a noted advocate of judicial restraint, helped found the American Civil Liberties Union and was nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court by Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The justice concluded the court is in no position to “cross-examine either actually or argumentatively the mind of Michigan legislators.”

Frank Murphy, former Detroit mayor, Michigan governor and U.S. attorney general, was a member of the U.S. Supreme Court at time. The Harbor Beach native voted in dissent. Murphy, who was also nominated to the court by Roosevelt, argued that the law arbitrarily discriminated between male and female owners of liquor establishments.

Today, 58.7% of America’s bartenders are women and 38.2% are men, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. 

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.