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24-04-2015, 09:27

Muller v. Oregon (1908)

The U. S. Supreme Court decision in Muller v. Oregon upheld maximum hours legislation for women. It was an important victory for many female activists. Progressive reformers had concentrated their attention on industrial ills. Their agitation led to enactment of child labor laws, maximum hours and minimum wage legislation, and minimum sanitation and safety standards in a variety of work places. Initial attempts at labor legislation met with mixed reviews from the state and federal courts. The earliest successful campaigns centered on regulating child labor. The special leeway accorded to children soon opened the door for women, who were perceived as similarly disadvantaged. In the long run, the Muller decision allowed states to limit the hours of male contractors on state jobs, and then maximum hours legislation for all. Female activists heralded Muller as a victory not because of its future impact on men’s hours, but rather because they believed that such legislation was necessary to protect women workers. The victory came, however, at the cost of reinforcing women’s status as a protected and dependent class.

The issue in Muller v. Oregon was a 1903 Oregon act that made it illegal to employ laundresses for more than 10 hours a day. The question was whether the act violated a woman’s freedom to contract her own labor. In September 1905, laundry-owner Curt Muller was fined for requiring Emma Gotcher, a laundress and labor activist, to work more than 10 hours on Labor Day. Muller’s attorney, William Fenton, was confident that the courts would rule in his client’s favor, given recent court decisions in Ritchie v. People (1895) and Lochner v. New York (1905). The Illinois Supreme Court in Ritchie had invalidated a law that would have limited the time a woman could be employed in factories or workshops to no more than eight hours a day. Similarly, in Lochner, the U. S. Supreme Court struck down a law that would have set a maximum hours standard for male bakers. In both cases, the courts decided the legislation was an inappropriate usage of the state’s police powers and restricted an individual’s right to contract without due process of law. In his arguments before the Supreme Court, Fenton reiterated that women were persons and citizens with the same rights as men and therefore had the same right to labor and liberty of contract.

When the Muller case was sent on appeal to the U. S. Supreme Court, the National Consumers League approached Louis Brandeis to defend the maximum hours statute. The league sought to educate the public, lobby legislatures, and pressure employers in order to improve workplace conditions. It also tracked the court battles surrounding the regulatory statutes in which it took interest. As part of their agreement, the league supplied massive amounts of data to support the Brandeis brief in the case.

The famous Brandeis Brief consisted of two pages of legal citations, most of which rested on the Lochner precedent. Louis Brandeis believed that the Lochner decision allowed that, if a valid reason could be found to justify regulating hours of labor, a statute would withstand judicial scrutiny. Accordingly, Brandeis and the National Consumers League collected employment statistics from Europe and the United States documenting the effects of long hours and hazardous conditions on women workers. Brandeis based his defense of the Oregon law on the state’s police powers, the delicate physical condition of women, and their special role as the bearers of children. The health of children, and therefore society’s general welfare, depended on protecting women as mothers or future mothers from overwork.

The Supreme Court agreed with Louis Brandeis. Justice David Brewer wrote the Court’s unanimous opinion upholding the constitutionality of the Oregon law. Brewer found that, “As healthy mothers are essential to vigorous offspring, the physical well-being of woman becomes an object of public interest,” thereby justifying Oregon’s use of its police powers. The Court also found that “woman has always been dependent upon man,” and because of this, “she is not an equal competitor with her brother.” Protective legislation that put unacceptable limits on men’s liberty of contract thus could be sustained for women. In concluding, the Court specifically stated that the Muller ruling did not overturn the decision in Lochner v. New York. The Muller decision validated only sex-specific economic protection based on a woman’s inherent maternity. Still, the National Consumers League accepted the ruling as a signal victory. It also established a permanent committee in defense of labor laws, and turned its attention to securing minimum wage legislation for women.

See also Adkins v. Children’s Hospital; Goldmark, Josephine; Kelley, Florence; women’s status and rights.

Further reading: Melvin Urofsky, “State Courts and Protective Legislation during the Progressive Era: A Reevaluation,” The Journal of American History 72 (1985): 63-91; Nancy Woloch, Muller v. Oregon: A Brief

History with Documents (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s Press, 1996).

—Debra A. Viles