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Adkins v. Children's Hospital

But Are They Constitutional?

After the arguments, Justice Sutherland, delivered the opinion of a divided Court. With reasoning that is reminiscent of modern jurists such as Ruth Bader Ginsburg, he said:

We cannot accept the doctrine that women of a mature age . . . may be subjected to restrictions upon their liberty of contract which could not lawfully be imposed in the case of men under similar circumstances.

In arguing that it was unfair to apply minimum wage laws to women but not to men, Sutherland went on:

It is simply and exclusively a price-fixing law, confined to adult women . . . who are legally as capable of contracting for themselves as men.


If women require a minimum wage to preserve their morals men require it to preserve their honesty.

Sutherland also highlighted the inconsistencies of the board's orders, pointing out that if a woman employed to serve food required a minimum wage of $16.50, he questioned the fairness of a beginning laundresses earning only $9 a week.

Finally, Sutherland concluded:

It may be said, that if in the interest of public welfare the police power may be invoked to justify the fixing of a minimum wage, it may, when the public welfare is thought to require it, be invoked to justify a maximum wage . . . If in the face of the guarantee of the Fifth Amendment this form of legislation shall be legally justified, the field for the operation of the police power will have been widened to a great and dangerous degree.

Justices Taft and Sanford disagreed, arguing:

Legislatures in limiting freedom of contract between employee and employer . . . proceed on the assumption that employees, in the class receiving less pay, are not upon a full level of equality of choice with their employers and . . . are prone to accept pretty much anything that is offered. They are peculiarly subject to the overreaching of the harsh and greedy employer. The evils of the sweating system and long hours and low wages which are characteristic of it are well known.

While Sutherland had said that the wages paid to an employee were the "heart of the contract," Taft felt that this opinion exaggerated the importance of one part of the contract--wages--over other terms, such as hours.

Justice Holmes believed that Congress did have the right to establish minimum rates of pay for women:

The end, to remove conditions leading to ill health, immorality, and the deterioration of the race, no one would deny to be within the scope of constitutional legislation.

Justice Brandeis, whose daughter, Elizabeth, was the secretary of the District's minimum wage board, took no part in the decision. This split the Court 5-3, with the majority voting to overrule the minimum wage law for women. In 1936, Morehead v. New York ex rel. Tipaldo reaffirmed the Adkins decision.

After Adkins, union leaders such as Samuel Gompers railed against the Court, fuming, "The Court ranges itself on the side of property and against humanity." He insisted that women "not only are . . . less than able to defend themselves on the economic fields, but they are absolutely without means of defense in the political field."

The minimum-wage boards in the states believed that their laws should be enforced as if the Court had not overruled Congress. Congressmen vowed to curb the Court. Senators, such as Simeon Fess, proposed that two-thirds vote of the Supreme Court be henceforth required for decisions. U.S. Senator William E. Borah wanted agreement among at least seven of the nine judges for future Court decisions. Senator Robert LaFollette suggested giving Congress the power to overrule the Supreme Court by reposing a law after an adverse decision. These reformers saw the Court as overstepping its boundaries and trying to legislate for Congress.

With the Great Depression of the 1930s, Americans came to agree with them. They swept President Franklin D. Roosevelt into the White House in 1932 on the promise of a New Deal. In 1936, Roosevelt sent Congress his "court-packing" plan, which would have added six judges to the Supreme Court, all appointed by him. The progressives, in the long run, were victorious.

Today, historians are somewhat more sympathetic to the Adkins Court. In 1978, legal scholar Lawrence H. Tribe wrote in American Constitutional Law:

While the Court justified the limitation of women's working hours by reference to the perceived social and biological need to limit the participation of women in the labor force [in Radice v. New York, which upheld a law prohibiting the employment of women in restaurants between 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. because of their "peculiar and natural functions"], the Court initially [in Adkins v. Children's Hospital] struck down women's minimum wage laws, which could not so easily be assimilated to sexist assumptions about the nature and role of women.

One thing is certain: Adkins v. Children's Hospital and Adkins v. Lyons would further the disintegration of the women's movement in the 1920s over the issue of equal versus special rights for women. Three years after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment (1920), and the same year that the Supreme Court ruled in Adkins v. Children's Hospital and Adkins v. Lyons (1923), Alice Paul and her militant National Woman's Party introduced the Equal Rights Amendment into Congress. Section 1 read: "Equality of rights under the law shall not be abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex." Then, in 1937 the Supreme Court overturned its ruling in Adkins with West Coast Hotel v. Parrish. However, in 1980, presidential candidate Ronald Reagan forced the Republicans to break from tradition by dropping the ERA plank from its platform, and in 1982, the ERA failed to win the endorsement of the necessary number of the states. This left open many of the issues dividing the women's movement in 1923, issues that have not disappeared and which continue to be debated to this day.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1918 to 1940Adkins v. Children's Hospital - Significance, Protective Legislation V. Equality, But Are They Constitutional?, History Of The Minimum Wage