Muller v. Oregon 208 U.S. 412 (1908)

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MULLER v. OREGON 208 U.S. 412 (1908)

Despite the Supreme Court's previous rejection of a maximum hour law for bakers in lochner v. new york (1905), here the Justices unanimously sustained an Oregon statute limiting women to ten hours' labor in "any mechanical establishment, or factory, or laundry." The sole issue was the law's constitutionality as it affected female labor in a laundry. Lawyers for Muller contended that the law violated freedom of contract, that it was class legislation, and that it had no reasonable connection with the public health, safety, or welfare. The state countered with louis d. brandeis's famous brief elaborately detailing similar state and foreign laws, as well as foreign and domestic experts' reports on the harmful physical, economic, and social effects of long working hours for women.

justice david brewer, speaking for the Court, based his opinion on the proposition that physical and social differences between the sexes justified a different rule respecting labor contracts, thereby allowing him to distinguish Lochner. Although the Constitution imposed unchanging limitations on legislative action, Brewer acknowledged that the fourteenth amendment's liberty of contract doctrine was not absolute. He invoked holden v. hardy (1898), sustaining an eight-hour day for Utah miners, and portions of Lochner that similarly approved some exceptional regulations. Brewer declared that although the legislation and opinions cited in the brandeis brief were not "authorities," the Court would "take judicial cognizance of all matters of general knowledge."

The accepted wisdom that women were unequal and inferior to men animated Brewer's opinion. Women's physical structure and their maternal functions, he said, put them at a disadvantage. Long hours of labor, furthermore, threatened women's potential for producing "vigorous" children; as such their physical well-being was a proper object of interest "in order to preserve the strength and vigor of the race." Beyond Brewer's concerns for the "future well-being of the race," he contended that the long historical record of women's dependence upon men demonstrated a persistent reality that women lacked "the self-reliance which enables one to assert full rights." Legislation such as the Oregon maximum hour law, Brewer concluded, was necessary to protect women from the "greed" and "passion" of men and therefore validly and properly could "compensate for some of the burdens" imposed upon women.

Taken out of context, Brewer's remarks obviously reflected paternalistic and sexist notions. Yet they also reflected prevailing sentiments, which he invoked to justify an exception to his normally restrictive views of legislative power. The same arguments were advanced by those who sought an opening wedge for ameliorating some of the excesses of modern industrialism.

Although the Muller decision did not overrule Lochner, it reinforced a growing line of precedents to counter Lochner. Muller eventually led to bunting v. oregon (1917), approving maximum hour laws for both sexes, a decision that Chief Justice william howard taft believed in 1923 had tacitly overruled Lochner—mistakenly, as it turned out, for the Court invoked Lochner to strike down a minimum wage law in adkins v. children ' s hospital (1923).

Stanley I. Kutler

(see also: Sex Discrimination.)


Mason, Alpheus T. 1946 Brandeis: A Free Man's Life. New York: Viking Press.

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Muller v. Oregon 208 U.S. 412 (1908)

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