Supreme Court

Drunk History: When the Government Banned Female Bartenders

A shameful chapter in U.S. law.


Kim Kyung Hoon/REUTERS/Newscom

"Why did it take America so long to have female bartenders?" So asks David Wondrich, author of the superb cocktail history, Imbibe!, in his latest column at The Daily Beast.

As Wondrich notes, "it wasn't about mixing drinks," since women are obviously capable of doing that. And "it wasn't about protecting the precious flower of American womanhood from the foul atmosphere of the bar," since American women have been drunkenly inhaling that atmosphere since at least the days of King George III. So "what was the taboo against barmaids about?" After a long, interesting overview of American drunk history, Wondrich settles on this thesis:

Any answer, I think, would have to be sketched out along these lines. During Colonial times, men fell into the job of tending bar, particularly in parts of the country where women were in short supply. With the diminished class system that prevailed over here, it wasn't seen as a somehow degrading or unmanly service job. It was seen for what it was, a moneymaking job with a fair amount of independence and just enough craft to earn its expert practitioners the respect of a nice-sized chunk of the populace. The more men mystified that craft part of the job by mixing up outlandish concoctions, tossing drinks between cups in long liquid arcs, dashing this and that into the glass with knowing winks, setting things on fire, so on and so forth, the more they could justify their high pay—and their exclusive possession of the job.

Surprisingly, Wondrich makes scant mention of one of the most obvious contributing factors to this sexist state of affairs. Namely, government regulators frequently banned women from working in this particular occupation. What's worse, those regulators received the blessing of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The state of Michigan, for instance, once had a law on the books forbidding women from working as bartenders unless they were "the wife or daughter of the male owner." Valentine Goesaert, who owned a bar in Dearborn, challenged the law for violating her right to tend bar at her own establishment. But the Supreme Court sided with the state. In an opinion written by progressive legal hero Justice Felix Frankfurter, the Court upheld the ban on the grounds that the judiciary owed vast deference to government regulation of economic activity.

"We cannot cross-examine either actually or argumentatively the mind of Michigan legislators nor question their motives," Justice Frankfurter wrote in Goesaert v. Cleary (1948). "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." Indeed, Frankfurter declared, "Michigan could, beyond question, forbid all women from working behind the bar."

Related: Government Almost Killed the Cocktail

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  1. I don’t want them getting all their breast milk in my white Russian, damn it.

    1. Just as in golf, the breasts get in the way.

      1. Gynecoomastia is no laughing matter.

    2. I don’t want them getting all their breast milk in my white Russian, damn it.

      My brain skipped the ‘milk’ on first reading. It made me realize that ‘pub height’ counters are sexist. The easy solution would be to build bars with steps and stools but that still treats them as though they were just like men, but smaller. The sensible solution then would be to convert the entire bar and cocktail culture to function like a Japanese tea house where men and women can bend at the waist to serve you equally.

  2. Any answer, I think, would have to be sketched out along these lines.

    We are inches away from a man on a college campus handing a drink to a woman being considered a rape.

    Your sketch doesn’t look enough like a Jackson Pollock painting.

  3. Yeah, men did this a lot. Sometimes legislatively, sometimes just culturally. But we see the pattern repeated a lot: profession previously mostly done by women becomes a lot more high-status and well-paying after men enter the field in significant numbers, and women (one way or another) get pushed out of the field.

    Not surprising that “bartending” joins that list.

    1. EscherEnigma’s drunk history:

      February 14, 1929 – Al Capone, after the massacre of Albert Kachellek/James Clark, Adam Heyer, Albert Weinshank, Frank Gusenberg, Peter Gusenberg, Reinhardt H. Schwimmer, and John May, takes control of organized crime in Chicago. Female bootleggers and bartenders hardest hit.

  4. Those were the bad old days, when men were men, and sheep were afraid!

    I am SOOOO glad that those bad old days are past us now! Now that we have ALL been set FREE!!!

    1. What, no rant about women not being allowed to play the skin flute at bars?

      1. They can do that, only if they aren’t getting paid, and it’s a private bar, except they CAN get paid if it’s for a porn movie, except if they don’t get paid the minimum wage…

        Except if the lack of a min wage is made up by “tips”!!! Don’t ask me what kind of “tips”!

        It’s all so damned complicated, it’s no wonder I can’t find me any skin-flute players for my garage band!!!

        1. Personal hygiene can help you find one. I suggest regular bathing. Honestly, it shouldn’t matter for a garage band.

        2. Sqrlsy 1, that… was actually very well stated.

  5. “progressive legal hero Justice Felix Frankfurter”

    The way the progs turned on Frankfurter is disgraceful, and typical. He was one of theirs, fighting the good fight against “right-wing reactionary judges” and their silly ideas of economic liberty. Frankfurter even devised a legal philosophy to justify the judges rolling over and rubber-stamping just about any economic regulation.

    Then it turned out that Frankfurther actually believed that stuff about judicial deference, even – and this is the shocking part – even when he met with a law the progressives didn’t like. Instead of turning on a dime and striking down laws the progs didn’t like, Frankfurter kept on with his defense of judicial deference – if you can imagine such a betrayal!

    1. Sadly, many conservatives (like Bork) bought into Frankfurter’s ideas, giving judicial deference extra respect just as the progs were ditching it. Frankfurter was a useful bridge to bring conservatives into the deference camp, especially since it meshed so well with the populist strain of conservatism (The People vs. pointy-headed judges).

      1. Was FrankenFarter at all, in any way, related to the infamous Dr. FronkenStoner?

  6. The article gives the impression that Colonial taverns were mostly run by men, but I’ve been reading in “A Renegade History of the United States” that many taverns were owned and operated by women during this time period (a majority of them in many areas). It wasn’t until later that the puritanical laws kicked in.

    1. Given how the article reaches from Colonial Era bartending to Michigan in the 40s issuing liquor licenses while completely dodging even a mention of prohibition, it feels very much like a narrative looking for facts to support it. It seems to be an unfortunate side effect of the modern progressive movement that, when looking back through history, the mentality with regard to women seems to be ‘no vote, no agency’. I can’t think of any other way you would look at American bar/alcohol history and not know about painted ladies of the west, loose women, saloon girls, and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and Anti-Saloon League and still think men were exclusive in their eviction of women from ‘their proper place being the bar'(?).

      What the SCOTUS at the time was essentially saying/doing was, not having a CRA, reinforcing the 9th/10th Am. in light of 21st having been ratified less than a decade before Michigan issued liquor licenses. That the article touches on colonial America and fails to point out that this ruling was issued within a decade after the end of Federal Prohibition seems… selectively inaccurate.

      1. I reached out to Wondrich on Twitter, and he was nice enough to reply and clarify that the number of female bartenders diminished over time in the US, which did not happen in Europe. The headline of his piece was written by an editor. This helped clarify some things for me, as even his article mentions multiple female bartenders, contradicting the headline.

        The interpretations in this article and the original both appear to me to leave out crucial bits of context, but that’s why I’m grateful for the comments section to fill in the gaps =). Still have a hard time forgiving the original article’s headline though…

  7. You didn’t even answer the question as well as the person you criticized. All you did was indicate a mechanism by which women were kept from bartending. You didn’t say why gov’t kept women from bartending. The author you criticized may well respond, “Well, duh, I knew that. The question is why society (by whatever means) held women back from this line of work. At least I provided a guess as to that, which you didn’t even do.”

  8. Where’s Tony and all the other lefties on here to line up in support of government?

    Government knows best….

  9. “Why did it take America so long to have female bartenders?”

    Maybe partly for the same reason America is taking its time to have male maternity-ward workers, day-care workers….

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