Muller v. Oregon
, , was a landmark
decision in United States Supreme Court
history, as it relates to both sex discrimination and labor laws. The case upheld Oregon state restrictions on the working hours of women as justified by the special state interest in protecting women's health.
Curt Muller, the owner of a laundry, was convicted of violating Oregon labor laws. He made a female employee work more than ten hours in a single day. Muller was fined $10. Muller appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court and then to the U.S. Supreme Court, both of which upheld the constitutionality of the labor law and affirmed his conviction.
The case was decided a mere three years after Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45 (1905), in which a New York law restricting the weekly working hours of bakers was invalidated. The Court had found that the regulation was not a reasonable regulation of the Due Process freedom of contract because the law was unnecessary to protect the health or safety of bakers.
In Justice David Josiah Brewer
's unanimous opinion in Muller
, however, the Court upheld the Oregon regulation. The Court did not overrule Lochner
, but instead distinguished it on the basis of "the difference between the sexes." The child-bearing physiology and social role of women provided a strong state interest in reducing their working hours.
- "That woman's physical structure and the performance of maternal functions place her at a disadvantage in the struggle for subsistence is obvious. This is especially true when the burdens of motherhood are upon her. Even when they are not, by abundant testimony of the medical fraternity continuance for a long time on her feet at work, repeating this from day to day, tends to injurious effects upon the body, and as healthy mothers are essential to vigorous offspring, the physical well-being of woman becomes an object of public interest and care in order to preserve the strength and vigor of the race." 208 U.S. at 412.
Future Supreme Court justice, Louis Brandeis, as additional counsel for the State of Oregon, filed a voluminous brief in support of the Oregon law that collected empirical data from hundreds of sources. In what became known as the "Brandeis Brief", the report provided social authorities on the issue of the impact of long working hours on women. This was the first instance in the United States that social science had been used in law and changed the direction of the Supreme Court and of U.S. law. The Brandeis Brief became the model for future Supreme Court presentations.
Though with the state winning in shorter hours for women, and the popular progressives being happy with the outcome, equal-rights feminists were against this because it worked so heavily on the separation of the sexes into two stereotyped gender-roles and limited free-contracts for women. The governmental interest in public welfare outweighed the freedom of contract that is displayed in the 14th Amendment
and the effects of Muller v. Oregon didn’t change until the New Deal
days in the 1930s. Some say that this case shows the irony of progressivism: that even though it fulfilled the wishes of workers, the government did it in a parental way; women were protected as women, but not as workers, while, through this case, men received fewer protections than women, not equal rights as it would be if the government were protecting workers as a whole.
- Becker, Mary E. (1986). "From Muller v. Oregon to Fetal Vulnerability Policies". University of Chicago Law Review 53 (4): 1219–1273.
- Cushman, Clare (2001). Supreme Court Decisions and Women's Rights: Milestone to Equality. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly.
- Woloch, Nancy (1996). Muller v. Oregon: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press.