Ruling to Protect Women

The United States Supreme Court opinion in Goesaert v. Cleary that favored laws protecting women from morally corrupt work environments.

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United States Supreme Court
Goesaert v. Cleary, (1948)
No. 49
Argued: November 19, 1948
Decided: December 20, 1948
MR. JUSTICE FRANKFURTER delivered the opinion of the Court. Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote this opinion on behalf of the Supreme Court.
As part of the Michigan system for controlling the sale of liquor, bartenders are required to be licensed in all cities having a population of 50,000, or more, but no female may be so licensed unless she be “the wife or daughter of the male owner” of a licensed liquor establishment…The case is here on direct appeal from an order of the District Court of three judges… The claim, denied below…is that Michigan cannot forbid females generally from being barmaids and at the same time make an exception in favor of the wives and daughters of the owners of liquor establishments. Beguiling as the subject is, it need not detain us long… In Michigan, bartenders in cities with a population of at least 50,000 must be licensed. A woman may not obtain such a license unless she is the wife or daughter of a male bar owner.
The case in question was appealed at the district court level. The district court denied the claim that the Michigan law is unconstitutional.
… Michigan could, beyond question, forbid all women from working behind a bar. This is so despite the vast changes in the social and legal position of women. The fact that women may now have achieved the virtues that men have long claimed as their prerogatives, and now indulge in vices that men have long practiced, does not preclude the States from drawing a sharp line between the sexes, certainly in such matters as the regulation of the liquor traffic…The Constitution does not require legislatures to reflect sociological insight, or shifting social standards, any more than it requires them to keep abreast of the latest scientific standards. Michigan has the right to forbid all women from working as bartenders. The social and legal position of women has changed, but states can still legally create separate laws for men and women.
While Michigan may deny to all women opportunities for bartending, Michigan cannot play favorites among women without rhyme or reasons… But the Constitution does not require situations “which are different in fact, or opinion to be treated in law as though they were the same.”… Since bartending by women may… give rise to moral and social problems against which it may devise preventive measures, the legislature need not go to the full length of prohibition if it believes that, as to a defined group of females, other factors are operating which either eliminate or reduce the moral and social problems otherwise calling for prohibition. Michigan evidently believes that the oversight assured through ownership of a bar by a barmaid’s husband or father minimizes hazards that may confront a barmaid without such protecting oversight. This Court is certainly not in a position to gainsay such belief by the Michigan legislature. If it is entertainable, as we think it is, Michigan has not violated its duty to afford equal protection of its laws… Since the line they have drawn is not without a basis in reason, we cannot give ear to the suggestion that the real impulse behind this legislation was an unchivalrous desire of male bartenders to try to monopolize the calling…
Michigan has the right to forbid all women from working as bartenders, but it must offer a good reason.
Bartenders are exposed to dangerous social and moral situations. The Michigan law in question provides reasonable oversight for women bartenders. Instead of banning women from bartending, it allows women who have a husband’s or father’s protection to bartend.
The Supreme Court is not in the position to question the morality of this protection. Michigan has provided a good reason for the law. There is not enough evidence to support the argument that this law is intended to limit women’s employment opportunities and rights.
…The District Court has sufficiently indicated the reasons that may have influenced the legislature in allowing women to be waitresses in a liquor establishment over which a man’s ownership provides control. Nothing need be added to what was said below as to the other grounds on which the Michigan law was assailed.
The district court provided good reasons for its decision. The Supreme Court upholds this decision.
Judgment affirmed.

U.S. Supreme Court, excerpt from Goesaert v. Cleary, no. 49. Argued November 19, 1948. 

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A 1947 Michigan law required all bartenders in cities with a population of at least 50,000 to be licensed by the state. The same law stated that the wives and daughters of the bar owner were the only women who could obtain such a license. This law immediately disrupted the lives of many women across Michigan. Valentine Goesaert owned a bar in Dearborn. Her daughter Margaret worked as a bartender. Neither Valentine nor her daughter could obtain the newly required license because a male relative did not own the bar—Valentine did.

Valentine and her daughter sued members of the Liquor Control Commission of Michigan. (Cleary was the last name of one of the commission members.) They argued that the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed equal protection under the law. From their perspective, the Michigan law violated that right by allowing only some women to own bars and work as bartenders. The commission argued that the law was constitutional because it protected women from working in an unsafe environment. They believed that only the presence of a male relative made bartending a safe occupation for a woman.

The district court ruled in favor of the Liquor Commission, so Valentine appealed. In 1948, her lawyers argued her case before the Supreme Court.

The justices were split in a 6–3 decision. The majority of justices affirmed—or upheld—the lower court’s decision. They agreed that the law did not unfairly discriminate against women. They also noted that Michigan had the right to take preventative measure to protect women when there was a clear rationale.

About the Resources

This document is excerpts from the official opinion—or decision—of the United States Supreme Court in the case of Goesaert v. Cleary. It was written by Justice Felix Frankfurter and supported by five other justices. The Supreme Court upheld the Michigan law. It ruled that the state had the right to limit the types of women who could work as bartenders. This decision reinforced the belief that governments could and should protect women from lines of work considered dangerous. This trend would continue for several more decades, well into the 1970s and beyond.


  • affirmed: Agreed. In a court case, this means that the judge or justice agrees with an earlier decision in the same case.
  • barmaid: A female bartender.
  • beguiling: Enchanting or distracting.
  • circuit court: A lower level federal court.
  • constitutional: Legal within the confines of the Constitution of the United States.
  • monopolize: Obtain or maintain exclusive control over something.
  • sociological: Related to social norms or problems.
  • Supreme Court of the United States: The highest court in the United States.
  • unchivalrous: Impolite.

Discussion Questions

  • What was the law in question? How did it specifically affect women?
  • What rationale does the Michigan legislature give for enacting this law? Why do they want to block certain women from bartending?
  • What was the Supreme Court’s final ruling in this case? What do you think of their argument? Do you or agree or disagree?
  • The opinion states that the Constitution does not require lawmakers to consider current sociological or scientific trends. What does this mean and why is it significant?
  • Why does the court refuse to consider the argument that the law was created so that men could monopolize the bartending profession?
  • All of the Justices in this case were men. Is this significant? Why or why not?
  • What does this document tell you about popular views of women at this time? Why is it significant that Michigan lawmakers felt it was appropriate to decide what kinds of jobs were safe or morally correct for women?
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Suggested Activities

  • Combine this document with the broadside and pamphlet related to the Equal Rights Amendment. How would supporters on each side of the ERA debate view this case? How would the ERA have helped Valentine Goeseart’s argument?
  • Compare and contrast this document with the Muller v. Oregon opinion. Both cases address the question of protective laws that how and when women could work in certain environments.
  • The opinion states that the Constitution does not require legislatures to reflect current sociological or scientific trends (see Discussion Question #4). Encourage students to identify a current local, state, or national law that they believe does not reflect current trends in society or science. How do they feel about this, and why is it a challenging aspect of our government?



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