Muller v. Oregon 1908

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Muller v. Oregon 1908

Appellant: Curt Muller

Appellee: State of Oregon

Appellant's Claim: That an Oregon law prohibiting women from working more than ten hours a day is unconstitutional.

Chief Lawyers for Appellant: William D. Fenton, Henry H. Gilfry

Chief Lawyers for Appellee: H. B. Adams, Louis Brandeis

Justices for the Court: David J. Brewer, William R. Day, Melville W. Fuller, John Marshall Harlan, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Joseph McKenna, William H. Moody, Rufus W. Peckham, Edward D. White

Justices Dissenting: None

Date of Decision: February 24, 1908

Decision: Ruled in favor of Oregon by agreeing with a lower court that women are a "special class" of citizens in need of protection at the workplace.


Significance: The classification of women as a special class brought mixed results. The decision paved the way for men and children to later receive similar protections under state laws regulating workplace conditions. But, the ruling also reinforced sexual discrimination in the workplace experienced by many women through the rest of the twentieth century.

For years women have fought cultural stereotypes depicting females as the "weaker sex." Such perceptions have long been a part of English tradition dating back at least to the medieval period of history. Women were considered primarily as wives and mothers, to be protected from the rough world outside the home. In marriage a wife's identity would be fully merged into the husband's. This idea carried forward until the mid-nineteenth century when states began recognizing wives more as separate persons. Still unable to vote in elections, the growing feminist political movement of the mid-nineteenth century focused on gaining voting rights.

Other issues also began to attract attention as well. During the industrial expansion following the American Civil War (1861–1865), workers' conditions were often deplorable. By the late nineteenth century, mass immigration from Europe to the U.S. industrial cities led to many women seeking work in the factories. "Sweat shops" became common. Almost twenty states passed laws placing women in a special legal class for protection from such harsh work conditions. Among these was Oregon which passed a law in February of 1903 setting the maximum number of hours a woman could work in a day. The act stated that "no female [shall] be employed in any mechanical establishment, or factory, or laundry in this state more than ten hours during any one day."

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the growing public demand for regulation of businesses collided with the prevailing legal ideas that the "liberty of contract" as provided in Section 10 of Article I of the Constitution prohibited just about all forms of government interference in business. The liberty of contract is a basic freedom to make agreements with others. Many claimed the freedom to contract for labor was protected from state regulation by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment which reads that the state shall not "deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law." The Supreme Court in Lochner v. New York (1905) negated a New York law setting maximum hours a week that bakers could work based on this concept.

Mrs. Elmer Gotcher

Not long after the Lochner decision, Joe Haselbock, foreman at Portland's Grand Laundry required Mrs. Elmer Gotcher, a launderer, to work more than ten hours on September 4, 1905. Gotcher filed a complaint against the shop's owner, Curt Muller, claiming that the laundry violated the Oregon maximum hours law. On September 18, the Multnomah County Court ruled in favor of Gotcher and fined Muller ten dollars. Muller appealed his conviction to the Oregon state supreme court which affirmed the sentence in 1906. Muller then decided to challenge the constitutionality of the state law and appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Oregon Case Attracts National Attention

With similar hours laws under attack in other states, the case attracted considerable attention of national feminist groups who promoted women's issues. The National Consumers' League, with Florence Kelley as executive secretary and Josephine Goldmark an active member, supported the Oregon law. Kelley and Goldmark believed long hours of work was harmful to female workers, particularly pregnant workers and mothers. However, other feminist groups opposed the Oregon law. Alice Paul and the National Woman Party believed that to treat women differently would make it difficult for women to compete with men for jobs. Special protection could hinder their efforts for gaining equality in the workplace. Other groups opposing the Oregon law were those not so much involved in women's issues, but more concerned about government interference in business and defending the "liberty of contract."

Kelley and Goldmark contended that states held a "special interest" in helping workers in dangerous occupations. Fearful that the recent Lochner decision could be a precedent (setting a principle for later court decisions) and restrain states' abilities to enact laws dealing with women's working conditions, they turned to Goldmark's brother-in-law and successful Boston lawyer, Louis D. Brandeis, to argue their case before the Court. Brandeis had gained a strong reputation for effectively arguing in favor of legal protection of people's social needs and had represented several states in defending their wage and hour laws.

Brandeis accepted the case but required the National Consumers' League provide him a massive amount of information within two weeks on the connection between women's health and long hours of factory work. Goldmark and Kelley labored around the clock to produce a 113-page brief (document for the Court) drawing information of many sources including the medical field.

Women Deserve Special Protection

Before the Court, Muller argued that the Oregon law denying women the right to work more than ten hours a day interfered with their liberty to make contracts and ability to support themselves. In addition, the Oregon law directly conflicted with another Oregon law giving men and women equal personal rights. Referring to the Fourteenth Amendment, Muller argued the Oregon law was unconstitutional since "the statute [law} does not apply equally to all persons . . . "

Brandeis, using the lengthy brief, countered that women as a group needed special protection. Brandeis attempted to show that unlike the situation in the Lochner case which dealt with mostly male bakers, the Oregon law was justified in protecting the health, safety, and welfare of women. Basing his argument on the notion that women are the "weaker sex," Brandeis stated it was "common knowledge" that permitting women to work more than ten hours a day in such workplaces as factories and laundries was "dangerous to public health, safety, morals [and] welfare." Extended periods of manual labor produced damaging physical and mental effects in women. Consequently, the state indeed had a valid interest in women's health.

Justice David J. Brewer, writing for the unanimous Court, stated that the mere fact that so many states had adopted such laws reflected "a widespread belief that woman's physical structure, and the functions she performs in consequence thereof, justify special legislation restricting or qualifying the conditions under which she should be permitted to toil."

In a statement that seemed progressive (forward thinking) at the time, but paternalistic (overly protective) ninety years later, Brewer wrote,

That woman's physical structure . . . place her at a disadvantage in the struggle for subsistence is obvious. This is especially true when the burdens of motherhood are upon her. Even when they are not . . . 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.

Brewer concluded that a woman "is properly placed in a class by herself, and legislation designed for her protection may be sustained." The Court unanimously affirmed the lower court decision. Muller was ordered to pay the fine plus court costs.

Mixed Results

The Muller decision opened the door for states to pass more laws regulating work conditions. Brandeis' argument also set a new standard for presenting information in support of reform laws addressing social conditions. The Court's role influence on reform laws was far from over. Still very protective of business interests, the Court ruled in Adkins v. Children's Hospital (1923) that state laws regulating workplace conditions were unconstitutional. But the Court changed direction again fourteen years later in West Coast Hotel v. Parrish (1937) by upholding a Washington state minimum wage law for women and children, essentially overturning the Adkins decision and returning to Muller. The sweeping protection of "liberty of contract" had finally declined in favor of protecting the health and safety of citizens. Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938 extending to men the same wage and hour restrictions earlier applied to women. The Court in United States v. Darby (1941) affirmed the constitutionality of minimum wage laws.

LOUIS D. BRANDEIS

L ouis Dembitz Brandeis (1856–1941), a brilliant lawyer and eventual Supreme Court justice, had a lifelong commitment to social reform. Born in 1856 in Louisville, Kentucky to well-to-do European immigrant parents, Brandeis was an excellent student. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1877 at the top of his class. Brandeis established a highly successful private law practice in Boston. Highly involved in the Progressive Movement at the beginning of the twentieth century and dedicated to social reform, he provided legal services for many causes.

In the Muller v. Oregon case, Brandeis introduced a whole new form of legal brief, one that was lengthy including much data from many subjects. The style became known as the Brandeis Brief. In 1916 Brandeis was appointed by President Woodrow Wilson (1913–1921) to the Supreme Court on which he served for twenty-three years. The first Jewish American Court nominee and a staunch supporter of social reform in a time of strong pro-business interests among the American leaders. The writer of many eloquent dissents while on the Court, Brandeis fought for individual rights laying the groundwork for recognition decades later of the right to privacy. Brandeis retired from the Court in 1939 and died in 1941. Widely considered one of the great justices in Supreme Court history, in 1948 a new private university, Brandeis University in Massachusetts, was named in his honor.

Though the Muller decision was welcomed by many earnestly trying to protect women from deplorable work conditions, it did add support to the "weaker sex" notion and hindered women from competing with men in many jobs. Women were commonly relegated to low-paying, temporary, unskilled jobs. Women could not deliver the mail, work in foundries and mines, run elevators, sell liquor, and work as streetcar conductors or printers in print shops. In reaction to the Muller decision, the New York Times wrote in its February 28, 1908 edition, "We leave to the advocates of women suffrage to say whether this decision makes for, or against, the success of their cause." The Nineteenth Amendment granting women voting rights was added twelve years later in 1920, but other feminist issues continued unresolved. The practice of treating women differently in the workplace continued through the remainder of the twentieth century.

Suggestions for further reading

Goldstein, Leslie F. The Constitutional Rights of Women. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.

Hoff, Joan. Law, Gender, and Injustice. New York: New York University Press, 1991.

Mezey, Susan G. In Pursuit of Equality: Women, Public Policy, and the Federal Courts. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992.