“An object of public interest” | Women, Labor, and Muller v. Oregon

By Tanya Monthey ::

U.S. Supreme Court in 1906, two years before Muller. Justice Brewer (third from right) gave the majority decision in 1908’s Muller v. Oregon. Photo Courtesy of Library of Congress

An Oregon businessman made it to the United States Supreme Court in 1908 challenging the state’s maximum hour law for women.  This case came before the Court at a time when progressive legislation was repeatedly struck down, in alignment with their economic ideology of laissez-faire capitalism. The Lochner Era, is named for Lochner v. New York, when the Court overturned New York’s Bakeshop act, which mandated maximum hour laws for workers in bakeries. The Court’s opinion established that, under the 14th Amendment, employers and employees had the liberty to contract with one another, and state’s mandating the amount of hours an employee could work, infringed on that relationship.

Furthermore, this court also struck down President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Live Poultry codes” in 1933’s A.L.A Schechter Poultry Corp v. United States, or as it is better remembered as, the “Sick Chicken” case. Roosevelt had enacted the live poultry code as part of National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), a set of codes that intended to promote the economy and the welfare of workers in response to the Great Depression. The poultry codes established standards for the industry such as maximum hour laws, minimum wage standards and health inspections. The Schechter brothers were charged with 60 counts of violating FDR’s codes and convicted for 19 of these charges. The Supreme Court overturned the brother’s charges in ruling that the NIRA overstepped Congress’ boundaries in regulating interstate commerce.

The Lochner Court ultimately overturned 184 state and federal statutes regulating labor. Kurt Muller, arguing that the maximum hour law infringed on his constitutional freedom to contract with his employees, had seemingly brought his case in front of the Court at an ideal time. So why had they upheld Oregon’s maximum hour law for women?

The 1903 Oregon law, which regulated women’s labor but not men’s, established that women working in factories and laundries could work no more than 10 hours per day. This negatively affected Kurt Muller’s two Portland businesses, Grand Laundry and Lace House Laundry. On Labor day of 1905, Muller required his employee Emma Gotcher to work more than 10 hours. He was convicted for violating the state law but he appealed his conviction. Ultimately, Muller v. Oregon defied precedent and upheld Oregon’s law.

Muller v. Oregon was the first Supreme Court case to use social science in the brief, known as the “Brandeis Brief” to argue the negative impact of long hours for women. This brief, coordinated by future Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis, related long hours to negative health impacts on women.

In the early 20th century, many women’s rights advocates believed for various reasons in promoting protective labor legislation. Groups such as the National Consumers’ League (NCL) and the General Federation of Women’s Club (GFWC) are two of the most prominent supporters of maximum hour and minimum wages laws for women. Sociologist Holly McCammond argues, “They held that women in particular need legal protections because they are the weaker sex and because harsh working conditions and low wages that undermine their health also undermine their ‘true’ roles as wives and mothers.” A clearly patriarchal argument.

For different reasons, working class women also supported these types of legislation. Groups such as the National Women’s Trade Union League (NWTU) asserted the then feminist argument that the unequal circumstances required protective legislation. Because of gender discrimination in hiring practices, many women toiled in lower skilled and lower paying jobs. Employers often assumed women had their husband’s or family’s  income to rely on, so they were more likely to hire men, and paid women less. Hoping to level the job market, many working class women benefited from protective legislation.

On the other hand, for women who sought political and economic autonomy from men, these legislations were critiqued because they supported patriarchal values of gendered hierarchies and women’s perceived roles regarding domesticity.

The Court’s acknowledgment of U.S Patriarchy is clear when Justice Brewer wrote in the majority opinion,

That woman’s physical structure and the performance of maternal functions place her at a disadvantage in the struggle for subsistence is obvious. This is especially true when the burdens of motherhood are upon her….continuance for a long time on her feet at work, repeating this from day to day, tends to injurious effects upon the body, and, as healthy mothers are essential to vigorous offspring, the physical well being of woman becomes an object of public interest and care in order to preserve the strength and vigor of the race.

Here, the court is adhering to the public consensus that women need men’s protection, and the health of the nation depended on healthy, childbearing women. Though we can see the intentions of Oregon’s maximum hour law for women was well-intentioned, the legally established differences of the sexes further enforced society’s patriarchal values. These differences can be used to define aspects of women’s citizenship and political opportunities. Women have continued to combat society’s gender ideology in promoting equal pay for equal work. It’s worth critiquing the class and gender aspects of arguments surrounding protective legislation, and the impacts on gendered differences in the labor market that still persist today.

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Music Used

“Feasting on the Flowers” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers


Tanya Monthey, Project Manager
Jeff Stone, Fact Checker
Taylor Bailey, Voice of Justice David Josiah Brewer