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Muller v. Oregon


Pigeonholing women as a special (weaker) class sex in need of minimum wages and maximum hours won the battle but lost the war, perpetuating sex-segregation in the work place.

On 18 September 1905, an Oregon launderer, Mrs. Elmer Gotcher, brought a complaint against her boss at the Portland Grand Laundry. She claimed Curt Muller had let his overseer, Joe Hazelbock, make her work more than ten hours on 4 September. This violated Oregon's "hour law" for women, which read "no female (shall) be employed in any mechanical establishment, or factory, or laundry in this state more than ten hours during any one day."

The county court agreed, sentencing Muller to pay a $10 fine. He appealed, but the state supreme court affirmed the decision. Believing the state law to be unconstitutional, Muller appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

However, he underestimated the forces arrayed against him. When Florence Kelley, executive secretary of the National Consumers' League, and Josephine Goldmark, a Barnard tutor, heard of his appeal, they seized an opportunity. They believed that working long hours was harmful to females workers, especially mothers and pregnant women. With hours laws under legal attack in several states, Kelley and Goldmark decided to test Muller's appeal.

The women faced opposition from two sources. The first was from other feminists. Alice Paul and members of her National Woman Party passionately opposed singling out women as needing special protection, believing that all women needed to compete with men on an equal playing field. If women could end discriminatory laws, especially those denying them the vote, they would achieve equality.

The second was from jurists who honored the idea of "liberty of contract," which included the freedom to contract labor. The courts viewed this doctrine as sacrosanct. They believed that Article I, Section 10, of the Constitution prohibited states from passing any law "impairing the Obligation of Contracts." The Due Process Clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments also protected liberty of contract ("nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law"). Progressives such as Kelley and Goldmark argued that the state had a "special interest" in helping workers who labored in dangerous jobs (mining) or in sweat shops that flourished during America's post-Civil War industrial expansion.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1883 to 1917Muller v. Oregon - Significance, A Clash Of Ideas, With Friends Like These . . ., The Aftermath, Further Readings