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Muller v. Oregon


MULLER V. OREGON (1908), 208 U.S. 412. In Muller the United States Supreme Court unanimously upheld an Oregon statute limiting the hours that women could labor in factories and laundries to ten a day. In a brief, conclusory opinion, Justice David J. Brewer, normally a foe of laws that interfered with the liberty of employment contracts exalted by Lochner v. New York (1905), found the Oregon limits compatible with Lochner because "this liberty is not absolute." Brewer justified the limits because of "woman's physical structure" and the "maternal functions" she performs in society. "Healthy mothers are essential to vigorous offspring" and thus to the "strength and vigor of the race."

In paternalistic passages, Brewer emphasized women's "disadvantage in the struggle for subsistence." Because of differences in physical strength and emotional temperament, a woman "is not an equal competitor" in the social-Darwinist struggle. "Woman has always been dependent on man," yet laws must "protect her from the greed as well as the passion of man."

Despite its now discarded presumptions, Muller had a far-reaching influence on subsequent constitutional doctrine. Though its authority was eclipsed for a time by Adkins v. Children's Hospital (1923) and Morehead v. New York ex rel. Tipaldo (1936), the court vindicated its holding after 1937. It was one of the first Supreme Court opinions to acknowledge the relevance of what are now called "constitutional facts." These are questions of fact that are necessary for an appellate court to know to be able to make a ruling on a constitutional issue. Most importantly, it was a turning point in constitutional law because the court for the first time accepted the persuasive authority of the "Brandeis brief," thereby admitting the relevance of the social sciences into constitutional adjudication.


Fiss, Owen M. Troubled Beginnings of the Modern State, 1888– 1910. New York: Macmillan, 1993.

Mason, Alpheus T. "The Case of the Overworked Laundress." In Quarrels that Have Shaped the Constitution. Edited by John A. Garraty. New York: Harper and Row, 1964.

William M.Wiecek

See alsoAdkins v. Children's Hospital ; Lochner v. New York andvol. 9:Women in Industry (Brandeis Brief) .

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