Cracking Open History: International Women's Day

We may not have a surviving photo of her today, but Valentine Goesaert was a tavern owner in Michigan where both she and her daughter worked. They survived prohibition and were leveraging every loophole imaginable within the laws that were already in place to restrict women from being bartenders. 

However, a law was passed in 1947 that restricted women from being bartenders unless they were the wife or daughter of a licensed male bar owner. (eye roll)

Goesaert, her daughter, and two other women who wanted to be bartenders hired women’s rights pioneer and attorney, Anne Davidow and together they sued and lost in Michigan courts. 

The state argued that since the profession of bartending could potentially lead to moral and social problems for women, it was within the state's power to bar them from working as bartenders. Only when the owner of the bar was a sufficiently close relative to the women bartender could it be guaranteed that such immorality would not be present? (eyeroll x2) Goesaert and Davidow appealed all the way to the supreme court with the argument that the law violated the Equal Protection clause of the 14th amendment. 

The state upheld that since the ownership of a bar by a barmaid's husband or father minimized hazards of social and moral problems that would otherwise be present for women, the legislature needed not go to the full length of prohibition with the appearance of two distinct groups of women.

The supreme court ruled 6-3 against her, and they lost. 

 One judge who wrote for the majority stated the following. “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 liquor traffic. Gross! 

While the 3 justices in the women’s corner said this: “The statute arbitrarily discriminates between male and female owners of liquor establishments. A male owner, although he himself is always absent from his bar, may employ his wife and daughter as barmaids. A female owner may neither work as a barmaid herself nor employ her daughter in that position, even if a man is always present in the establishment to keep order. The inevitable result of the classification belies the assumption that the statute was motivated by a legislative solicitude for the moral and physical well-being of women who, but for the law, would be employed as barmaids. Since there could be no other conceivable justification for such discrimination against women owners of liquor establishments, the statute should be held invalid as a denial of equal protection.”

Although they lost Goesaert and her attorney’s case proved to be a landmark. It paved the way, and set precedent for gender discrimination in the hospitality industry and gender discrimination overall. When Davidow finally convinced Michigan to repeal the law, it forever raised the bar for equality behind the bar.


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