Muller v. State of Oregon

views updated

Muller v. State of Oregon

United States 1908


Muller v. State of Oregon was an influential Supreme Court decision that asserted the right of the government to limit the workday for women. Using social science evidence, Louis Brandeis argued before the Court that women who worked long hours on the job suffered both physical and psychological problems. He emphasized the effect this had on their children, so that working for long hours outside the home adversely affected not only women workers themselves, but also their entire family.

Muller gave Congress the right to pass subsequent "protective" legislation that restricted the rights of women workers. This led in turn to the exclusion of women from certain kinds of occupations and employment opportunities. The Muller decision has never been overturned in the same way Brown v. Boardof Education of Topeka overturned Plessy v. Ferguson. With the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, legislators have since mitigated the restrictive and discriminatory intent the original legislation promoted.


  • 1889: Flooding in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, kills thousands.
  • 1893: Wall Street stock prices plummet on 5 May, precipitating a market collapse on 27 June. In the wake of this debacle, some 600 banks and 15,000 other businesses fail. The nationwide depression will last for four more years.
  • 1898: Bayer introduces a cough suppressant, derived from opium, its brand name: Heroin.
  • 1902: The Times Literary Supplement, a weekly review of literature and scholarship, begins publication in London.
  • 1905: Russian Revolution of 1905 occurs. Following the "bloody Sunday" riots before the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg in January, revolution spreads throughout Russia, in some places spurred on by newly formed workers' councils, or soviets. Among the most memorable incidents of the revolt is the mutiny aboard the battleship Potemkin. Suppressed by the czar, the revolution brings an end to liberal reforms, and thus sets the stage for the larger revolution of 1917.
  • 1909: Robert E. Peary and Matthew Henson reach the North Pole.
  • 1909: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is founded by W. E. B. Du Bois and a number of other prominent black and white intellectuals in New York City.
  • 1909: William Cadbury's Labour in Portuguese West Africa draws attention to conditions of slavery in São Tomé and Principe.
  • 1911: Revolution in Mexico, begun the year before, continues with the replacement of the corrupt Porfírio Díaz, president since 1877, by Francisco Madero.
  • 1915: A German submarine sinks the Lusitania, killing 1,195, including 128 U.S. citizens. Theretofore, many Americans had been sympathetic toward Germany, but the incident begins to turn the tide of U.S. sentiment toward the Allies.
  • 1919: With the formation of the Third International (Comintern), the Bolshevik government of Russia establishes its control over communist movements worldwide.

Event and Its Context

Origins of Protective Legislation

America's cities rapidly industrialized following the Civil War. As a consequence of industrialization, people from rural areas of the United States as well as from foreign countries moved to these expanding urban centers at an alarming rate. They were abandoning the economic decline gripping rural parts of the country and economic upheaval overseas; moreover, they were drawn to the many financial opportunities the cities offered. As a result of this increase in the urban population and workforce, many reformers of the time feared that the social fabric of society was unraveling. The target of this fear was the large number of women and children entering the work-force. Many reformers believed that single women, living away from home, could easily be dragged into moral degradation and sexual exploitation. As a result of this concern, reformers pressed federal, state, and local governments to enact legislation to protect women and children both in the workplace and at home.

This "protective legislation," while brimming with good intentions, in practice restricted the rights of children and women and led to government-sponsored discrimination rather than actual protection from exploitation. Men in the workplace, who were competing with women and children for jobs in the unskilled labor sector, welcomed this type of legislation. Employers preferred to hire women and children for unskilled labor, rather than men, because they worked for lower wages. By limiting the number of hours and types of jobs that women and children could attain, men hoped they could encourage more job opportunities and better negotiating positions for themselves.

Social Darwinism

By the late nineteenth century, social Darwinism was in-grained in American intellectual thought. Social Darwinism applied the ideas of natural selection, which Charles Darwin introduced in his 1859 work On the Origin of Species, to a social context. Based on this notion, many Progressive Era reformers became "race" advocates out of fear that this era of "moral uncertainty" would denigrate the white race. Reformers during this time felt they had to control the behavior of white women in order to preserve the future of the common culture and civilization of white Americans. Thus, these reformers were not concerned about the moral dilemmas facing women of color; indeed, social Darwinists saw no moral conflict in curbing civil liberties in order to prevent perceived denigration of the white race.

Additionally, social Darwinists had a paternalistic outlook toward gender roles in American society. They believed that adult women were like children and that it was the role of adult men in society to protect them from the viciousness of American life. Like children, women could not be expected to make serious, informed decisions about their own well-being. In fact, the belief that women were incapable of making decisions outside the domestic realm was the primary argument for restricting the right to vote to adult, generally white, men.

Liberty of Contract Doctrine

Before the era of the minimum wage, courts tacitly defined the complex relationships among workers, management, and government through the "liberty of contract doctrine." Courts took a laissez-faire attitude when it came to the role of government in determining labor negotiations between workers and management. They believed that government had no right to abridge the rights of workers to negotiate issues related to working conditions, wages, and hours. However, the courts believed that government could interfere in the individual freedom of workers and management if there was a real threat to public safety. The courts spelled out this policy through a series of labor decisions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Thomas M. Cooley (1824-1898), a famous legal scholar of the time, published A Treatise on the Constitutional Limitations Which Rest upon the Legislative Power of the States of the American Union, which addressed the liberty of contract doctrine. Cooley noted that the liberty of contract doctrine was sex-based and recommended that it be applied only to adult men, not to women. Influenced by social Darwinism, Cooley believed that women legally had the same status as children and the mentally deficient.

Progressive Era Reform

Many reformers in the late nineteenth century were influenced by the tenets of social Darwinism. They believed that women in the workplace represented a threat to racial progress in the United States. Reformers believed that work diverted white women away from marriage and motherhood and that they would be educated in skills that would not help them to become better homemakers, which was considered their prime function. Reformers explained that women on the job learned masculine tasks and had no opportunity to develop their feminine attributes. Thus, in the event they decided to marry, they would find themselves unattractive to men and unprepared for marriage. Additionally women, particularly young ones, who either gained financial independence or offered economic assistance to their families or households were very real threats to male authority. Reformers believed that it was better for all women to stay at home and remain dependent on their fathers and husbands so that the patriarchal hierarchy would not be challenged.

Racism ran rampant through the policies these reformers promoted. The more race-conscious reformers feared that young white women would be exposed to women of color in the workplace. As a result of this workplace "race mixing," reformers believed that white women would learn immoral behavior, which in turn would denigrate white civilization. While these reformers may have genuinely believed that they were trying to uplift white women, they had no interest in reforming the circumstances of women of color in the workplace.

Reformers organized groups such as the Working Women's Protective Union, the Working Girl's Society, and the Travelers Aid Society to shield women from the moral horrors of the workplace. Settlement houses also promoted these reform agendas and tried to educate immigrants and rural women moving to the city about the evils of urban life. These organizations and reformers stepped into the fray by using the liberty of contract exception against women workers. They believed that by identifying the specific ways in which women in the workplace posed a threat to civilization, they could influence local and state governments to address legislation to direct how and for how long women could work outside their homes. They convinced local and state governments to set aside the liberty of contract doctrine in favor of enacting laws that directed the lives of working women. A favorite policy of these organizations was to limit the number of hours women were allowed to work.

State Legislatures

Many of these reformers were successful in convincing state legislatures to enact laws to restrict the number of hours women could work. Massachusetts was the first state to address this issue. In 1842 the state legislature passed a law limiting the number of hours children could work and then, five years later, added women to the measure. Men, however, were never added to the legislation. Under pressure from the reformers at Hull House, a settlement house in Chicago, Illinois, that state passed a measure in 1893 to limit the number of hours women could work in factories to just eight per day. By 1902 Washington, New York, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania had all passed laws limiting the number of hours women could work in industry. Women workers challenged most of the laws in these states.

Previous Court Challenges

Women who objected to these laws challenged them in courts based on the liberty of contract doctrine. Commonwealth v. Hamilton Manufacturing Company was the first challenge to the minimum-hour law for women. Without making specific references to women in their decision, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled in 1876 that this law did not violate the rights of workers, since it only applied to one employer at a time. Therefore, if a woman worked two jobs, she could work the minimum number of hours for both employers. Additionally, the court recognized that the Massachusetts law was a health regulation.

One victory for women who objected to these laws was Ritchie v. People, which targeted the Illinois minimum-hour law. The Illinois Supreme Court struck down the law in 1895 for two reasons. In 1872 the state legislature had passed a law that guaranteed women "freedom of occupation." Secondly, the state's minimum-hour law used the terminology "he/she," instead of singling out men or women specifically. Thus, since men were technically part of the original legislation, the law violated the liberty of contract doctrine. Although this court decision was a victory for white women who desired to work outside the home, it was hollow for the opponents of minimum-hour laws. Even though the court struck down the law, the decision still recognized that women in the workplace represented a threat to the social welfare of society. Consequently, the Illinois court case became not an affirmation for equal rights but a condemnation of poor legal phrasing.

In 1900 Commonwealth v. Beatty made its way to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. This case was important because for the first time the courts publicly recognized the liberty of contract doctrine as pertaining only to adult males. The court referred to the Holden v. Hardy decision, which affirmed the right of the state of Utah to impose an eight-hour workday on miners who worked underground. Holden recognized the right of the government to dismiss the liberty of contract doctrine when the health of the workers was at risk. The Pennsylvania court applied this principle to Commonwealth v. Beatty by recognizing women not only as potential mothers but also as sharing legal status that was identical to that of their children. Thus the court affirmed the idea that women are biologically distinct from men and are therefore incapable of performing certain types of dangerous or physically demanding work or of working long, exhausting hours. The court noted that it was the responsibility of the government to shield women from these dangers in the workplace. This case was important because it would set the legal precedent identifying the inherent differences between men and women.

Finally, an important case that set the stage for Muller was Lochner v. New York. The United States Supreme Court heard the Lochner case in 1905. challenged a New York law that restricted the number of hours a baker could work. Many legislators believed that because baking conditions were hazardous and unsanitary, the baking industry posed a risk to workers. Lawyers challenged the law by preparing briefs indicating that medical authorities believed that baking conditions posed no threat to workers. The Court was so moved by the evidence contained in the brief that they declared the law unconstitutional. Although this decision represented a victory for the liberty of contract doctrine, it did not translate into a victory for gender equality. In their decision, the justices only referred to bakers as "men" and used the masculine pronoun when referring to the bakers affected by the Court's decision. Clearly, the judges felt that the Lochner decision did not apply to women; their conscious references to men and men alone sent a message that this verdict had no relevance to minimum-hour laws directed toward women.

Curt Muller and Mrs. E. Gotcher

The Oregon legislature passed a law in 1903 that limited the length of time a woman in the laundry industry and factories could work to 10 hours per day. Curt Muller owned the Grand Laundry in Portland. He required an employee, Mrs. E. Gotcher, to work for more than 10 hours on 4 September 1905. On the basis of the state law, Muller was indicted, convicted, and fined $10.00; the Oregon Supreme Court upheld his conviction. Believing that the Lochner decision applied to his case, he appealed his conviction to the United States Supreme Court.

The Brandeis Brief

Advocates for minimum-hour laws rallied to defend the Oregon statute. Florence Kelley of the National Consumer's League convinced Louis Brandeis to take the case on behalf of the state of Oregon. He, along with Helen Marot, Josephine Goldmark, and other women from the National Consumer League, prepared the evidence used to argue the case. Taking a page from the Lochner trial, Brandeis and his associates prepared what became know as the "Brandeis brief." Similar to the brief used to argue the Lochner case, Brandeis and his associates developed medical, sociological, and other professional evidence to suggest that women who worked long hours placed their health and the health of their families at risk. Although this argument had been tried in earlier litigation, the Brandeis brief was much longer, provided much more evidence, and contained more professional voices than the Lochner brief. Presentation of the Brandeis brief was, in fact, the first time in U.S. history that a lawyer tried a case with factual and expert testimony alone rather than relying on previous court decisions or interpretations of law.

Initially, Brandeis argued that certain types of work posed certain dangers to women, and he presented four reasons that women's labor should be regulated. First, women were biologically different from men and in many regards physically weaker than men. Second, adversity in the workplace might have an impact on the reproductive capabilities of women. Third, the health of a child might be in jeopardy if a mother chose to work. Fourth, too much time spent at work meant that a woman had less time to spend at home taking care of her family. Only one of Brandeis's points affected women directly; the rest of them affected women's families or potential children.

Muller and his attorney, William D. Fenton, argued that the Oregon law violated the equal rights of both men and women in the workplace. He noted that whatever dangers the workplace posed to women, men were subject to the same dangers. Thus if the law did not apply to men and women equally, it violated the constitutional guarantee of "equal protection." He hoped that the court would recognize the precedent set with both the Ritchie and Lochner decisions.

The Supreme Court Decision

The Supreme Court rendered a unanimous decision. Associate Justice David J. Brewer wrote the opinion. According to Brewer's opinion, the Court recognized the physical difference between the sexes and maintained the opinion that women were of the same legal status as children. He frequently made references to the earlier Court decisions in regard to minimum-hour laws. The Court even believed that this decision would stand for some time, because Brewer noted that if women eventually won the right to vote, their legal status would not change.


The Muller verdict had a far-reaching impact for all workers and future landmark lawsuits in the United States. Muller introduced the techniques employed in the Brandeis brief to courtrooms across the country, and they became a popular way to present evidence for most of the twentieth century. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People utilized the techniques employed in the Brandeis brief when they presented their case for Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. The Muller decision also allowed government to exercise control over women in the workplace. As the twentieth century progressed and the demand for gender equality became more vocal, the overt sexism in these laws diminished, and many of them were voided by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which also addressed discrimination based on race and sex.

Key Players

Brandeis, Louis (1856-1941): Brandeis was a famous lawyer who tried high-profile and controversial cases. He accepted and relished in cases that had social reform implications, such as Muller v. State of Oregon. Later, President Woodrow Wilson appointed him to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he served from 1916 to 1939.

Brewer, David J. (1837-1910): Brewer, an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (1889-1910), was appointed to the High Court bench by President Benjamin Harrison. He delivered the unanimous opinion in the Muller v. State of Oregon case.

Goldmark, Josephine Clara (1877-1950): Goldmark was a social scientist and journalist. She was a social and labor reformer interested in preserving labor laws that protected women and children. She helped her brother-in-law, Louis Brandeis, gather evidence to argue Muller successfully before the Supreme Court.

Kelley, Florence (1859-1932): Kelley was a social reformer who advocated for the federal government to take a role in labor reform. She supported numerous efforts for protective legislation regarding women and children in the workplace. She was director of the National Consumer League and a founder of the National Women's Trade Union League. She was instrumental in convincing Louis Brandeis to take the Muller case and helped to research and write the information contained in the Brandeis brief.

Marot, Helen (1865-1940): Marot was a social scientist and labor reformer. She was an activist for women and children who were in the workforce. She helped gather evidence and write the Brandeis brief for the Muller case.

See also: Civil Rights Act of 1964; Lochner v. New York; Working Women's Protective Union.



Abramovitz, Mimi. Regulating the Lives of Women: Social Welfare Policy from Colonial Times to the Present. Boston, MA: South End Press, 1988.

Dalrymple, Candice. Sexual Distinctions in the Law: Early Maximum Hour Decisions of the United States Supreme Court, 1905-1917. American Legal and Constitutional History. New York: Garland, 1987. (Originally Ph.D. diss., University of Florida, 1979.)

Johnson, Elaine Gale Zahnd. "Protective Legislation and Women's Work: Oregon's Ten-Hour Law and the Muller v. Oregon Case, 1900-1913." Ph.D. diss., University of Oregon, 1982.

Woloch, Nancy. Muller v. Oregon: A Brief History with Documents. Boston, MA: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1996.


Acker, James R. "Thirty Years of Social Science in Supreme Court Criminal Cases." Law and Policy 12 (fall 1990): 1-23.

Allen, Ann. "Women's Labor Laws and the Judiciary:Reaction to Progressive Philosophy." Proceedings of the South Carolina Historical Association 65 (1985): 75-85.

Duncanson, Ian W. "Seen from Afar: An Outsider's Response to the Hurst Symposium." Law and History Review 18 (fall 2000): 181-185.

Englander, Susan. "The Science of Protection: Gender-Based Legal Arguments for the Ten-Hour Workday." UCLA Historical Journal 14 (1994): 33-52.

Erickson, Nancy S. "Muller v. Oregon Reconsidered: The Origins of a Sex-Based Doctrine of Liberty of Contract." Labor History 30 (winter 1989): 228-250.

Urofsky, Melvin I. "Myth and Reality: The Supreme Court and Protective Legislation in the Progressive Era." Journal of Supreme Court History: Yearbook of the Supreme Court Historical Society (1983): 53-72.


Muller, Plaintiff in Error, v. the State of Oregon. Decided February 24, 1908 [cited 16 November 2002]. <>.

Muller v. State of Oregon 1908. Women in American History. Encyclopaedia Britannica. 1999 [cited 16 November 2002]. <>.

—Robert Cassanello

About this article

Muller v. State of Oregon

Updated About content Print Article