Muller v. Oregon
After Muller, many states passed wages and hours laws and other statutes regulating the conditions of work. However, in 1923, the Supreme Court ruled this legislation was unconstitutional in Adkins v. Children's Hospital. Then the Great Depression of the 1930s forced the Court to reverse its decision. In the 1937 case West Coast Hotel v. Parrish, the Court--drawing on Muller v. Oregon--overruled its 1923 decision in Adkins v. Children's Hospital to uphold Washington State's minimum wage law for women and minors. The justices had nudged the liberty of contract doctrine off its pedestal.
West Coast Hotel v. Parrish paved the way for the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which extended to men the wages and hours laws women had won. In United States v. Darby (1941), the Court ruled that minimum wage laws for men were constitutional.
Over time protective legislation--although it brought relief to millions--kept women in low paying, temporary, unskilled jobs. The laws barred women from working overtime and holding good (male) jobs. For instance, females could not sell spirits, deliver the mail, work in foundries and mines, or run elevators. The American Federation of Labor in 1914 turned its back on its earlier support for protective legislation and used the "weaker sex" argument to keep poorly paid women from working with men. It stopped women from working as printers or streetcar conductors and endorsed unequal pay for the same work.
On 28 February 1908, the New York Times wrote of the Muller decision, "We leave to the advocates of women suffrage to say whether this decision makes for, or against, the success of their cause." Muller gave relief to women and children and opened the door to more humane working conditions for men. However, it further segregated the workplace and provided an excuse for unions and employers alike to keep the wages of women low--trends that remain to this day.
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