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West Coast Hotel v. Parrish


In one of the rare instances in which the Supreme Court overruled one of its own precedents, West Coast Hotel v. Parrish set the stage for the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.

In the late nineteenth century, many Americans believed women were a separate class from men--physically, economically, and socially. Wisconsin, presuming females were "handicapped for motherhood" by working long hours, passed the first "hour law" for women in 1867. The statute limited the workday of women to ten hours. By 1907, 20 states had passed similar laws. Five years later, Massachusetts passed the nation's first minimum wage law, and over the next two years 14 states did the same.

Protective legislation regulating hours and wages clashed with the nineteenth century understanding of liberty, specifically the right to contract one's labor, called "liberty of contract." Many felt the Constitution guaranteed this right in Article I, Section 10 and in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. The two ideas clashed dramatically in 1905, with Lochner v. New York, and in 1908, with Muller v. Oregon.

Most employers and male workers fought change. Lawyers battled in the courtrooms over whether or not "liberty of contract" meant starvation wages for women and children. In both 1923's Adkins v. Children's Hospital and 1936's Morehead v. New York ex rel. Tipaldo, the Supreme Court had upheld "freedom of contract." In Morehead, which invalidated New York's minimum wage law for women and children, the Court had ruled that any minimum wage law denied due process.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1918 to 1940West Coast Hotel v. Parrish - Significance, A Test Case, A Close Vote, James Clark Mcreynolds, Further Readings