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Muller v. Oregon upholds Oregon law restricting working hours for women workers

The U.S. Supreme court rules that the Oregon statute restricting women’s work hours in certain industries is constitutional, and that Curt Muller was in violation of the law when he kept employee Emma Gotcher at work longer than 10 hours in one day. The controversial ruling had important implications for protective labor legislation, or the right of the state to create legislation based on “the difference between the sexes.”

Muller v. Oregon is considered a landmark case in United States legal history. The case centered on the right of the state to dictate the terms by which women could enter into negotiation with an employer. During the supreme court hearing, Louis D. Brandeis, lawyer for the State of Oregon, presented the now famous Brandeis Brief, which argued in favor of the restrictive law based on the relative weakness of women’s bodies, and the effect of work on their reproductive capacities. The brief is noteworthy for being the first used in a major legal case that relied primarily on social science data rather than legal data as a basis for argument.

The argument of the state, and those in support of the restriction, centered on the reproductive capacity of women, and the state’s right to impose what it saw as protections to ensure that reproductive capacity was not endangered by an employer, or the women herself.

The arguments of Curt Muller, and those against the restriction, were that the state did not have the right to interfere in the “right to work” contract between employer and employee. The case of Lochner v. New York, which sought to restrict the working hours of bakers in New York, was overruled by the Supreme Court three years before Muller v. Oregon for just that reason. Muller v. Oregon set the precedent of giving the state a special right to create legislation based on its supposed role in the reproductive capacity of women.

As healthy mothers are essential to vigorous offspring, the physical wellbeing of woman is an object of public interest. The regulation of her hour of labor falls within the police power of the State, and a statute directed exclusively to such regulation does not conflict with the due process or equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. (Muller v. Oregon, 208 U.S. 412)

At the time, the decision was celebrated by progressive era reformists for protecting working class women in an industry that was typically low paying and physically demanding. In later years, the decision has been criticized for its overly conservative stance in prioritizing the state’s role in reproductive control over women’s rights to self-determination.

Muller v. Oregon, 208 U.S. 412
Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45
Brandeis Brief, in full
Brandeis Brief, laundry-relevant

Further reading:
The Radical Middle Class: populist democracy and the question of capitalism in progressive era Portland, Oregon