Waged Work and Protective Laws

The United States Supreme Court opinion in Muller v. Oregon that outlines one rationale behind laws designed to protect women in the workplace and demonstrates the often sexist and short-sighted nature of social reforms.

Document Text


United States Supreme Court
No. 107
Argued: January 15, 1908
Decided: February 24, 1908
Messrs. William D. Fenton and Henry H. Gilfry for plaintiff in error.
Messrs. H. B. Adams, Louis Brandeis, John Manning, A. M. Crawford, and B. E. Haney for defendant in error.
This is the official opinion of the Supreme Court in the case of Muller v. State of Oregon.
Mr. Justice Brewer delivered the opinion of the court: It was written by Justice Brewer.
On February 19, 1903, the legislature of the state of Oregon passed an act (Session Laws 1903, p. 148) the first section of which is in these words:
“Sec. 1. That no female (shall) be employed in any mechanical establishment, or factory, or laundry in this state more than ten hours during any one day.”  . . .
In 1903, Oregon passed a law saying that female factory or laundry workers cannot work more than ten hours in one day.
On September 18, 1905, an information was filed in the circuit court . . . that the defendant “on the 4th day of September, A. D. 1905, in the county of Multnomah and state of Oregon, then and there being the owner of a laundry, known as the Grand Laundry . . . require a female, . . . one Mrs. E. Gotcher, to work more than ten hours . . .” In 1905, the manager of the Grand Laundry in Oregon required one of its female employees to work more than ten hours.
A trial resulted in a verdict against the defendant, who was sentenced to pay a fine of $10. The supreme court of the state affirmed the conviction . . . whereupon the case was brought here . . . The manager of the laundry was sued in court and sentenced to pay $10 for violating state law. The case was appealed.
The single question is the constitutionality of the statute under which the defendant was convicted . . . The Supreme Court needed to decide if the Oregon law was constitutional.
It is the law of Oregon that women, whether married or single, have equal contractual and personal rights with men. . . .
It thus appears that, putting to one side the elective franchise, in the matter of personal and contractual rights [women] stand on the same plane as the other sex. Their rights in these respects can no more be infringed than the equal rights of their brothers. We held in Lochner v. New York . . . a law providing that no laborer shall be required or permitted to work in bakeries more than sixty hours in a week or ten hours in a day was not as to men a legitimate exercise of the police power of the state, but an unreasonable, unnecessary, and arbitrary interference with the right and liberty of the individual to contract in relation to his labor, and as such was in conflict with, and void under, the Federal Constitution.
Women and men have equal rights in Oregon (except women cannot vote). The Supreme Court ruled in an earlier case that laws limiting the number of hours an employee can work are unconstitutional.
That decision is invoked by [Muller] as decisive of the question before us. But this assumes that the difference between the sexes does not justify a different rule respecting a restriction of the hours of labor. . . . However, that earlier decision assumed that men and women are the same.
. . . [A] widespread belief that woman’s physical structure, and the functions she performs in consequence thereof, justify special legislation restricting or qualifying the conditions under which she should be permitted to toil. . . . Women’s bodies are different than men’s, and many people believe that means laws can be different for men and women.
It is undoubtedly true, as more than once declared by this court, that the general right to contract in relation to one’s business is part of the liberty of the individual, protected by the 14th Amendment to the Federal Constitution; yet it is equally well settled that this liberty is not absolute . . . and that a state may . . . restrict in many respects the individual’s power of contract. . . . The Constitution protects an individual’s right to work for a business in the way they choose. However, the Constitution also allows that right to be restricted in special cases.
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. The country needs women to be healthy so that they can have healthy children.
Still again, history discloses the fact that woman has always been dependent upon man. He established his control at the outset by superior physical strength . . . As minors, though not to the same extent, she has been looked upon in the courts as needing especial care that her rights may be preserved.  Women have always been dependent on men because men are physically superior.
Education was long denied her, and while now the doors of the schoolroom are opened and her opportunities for acquiring knowledge are great . . . She will still be where some legislation to protect her seems necessary to secure a real equality of right.  While new opportunities, like education, are now available to women, it seems necessary to protect women with special laws.
Doubtless there are individual exceptions, and there are many respects in which she has an advantage over him . . . Differentiated by these matters from the other sex, she is properly placed in a class by herself, and legislation designed for her protection may be sustained, even when like legislation is not necessary for men . . . Women are a special class because of their inferiority. This justifies protective laws.
It is impossible to close one’s eyes to the fact that she still looks to her brother and depends upon him. . . . The limitations which this statute places . . . upon her right to agree with her employer as to the time she shall labor, are not imposed solely for her benefit, but also largely for the benefit of all. Protective laws benefit women and all of society.
Many words cannot make this plainer. The two sexes differ in structure of body, in the functions to be performed by each, in the amount of physical strength, in the capacity for long continued labor, particularly when done standing, the influence of vigorous health upon the future well-being of the race, the self-reliance which enables one to assert full rights, and in the capacity to maintain the struggle for subsistence. This difference justifies a difference in legislation, and upholds that which is designed to compensate for some of the burdens which rest upon her. . . . The bodies of men and women are different. The government must protect women in factories so that they can have healthy children.
For these reasons . . . we are of the opinion that it cannot be adjudged that the act in question is in conflict with the Federal Constitution, so far as it respects the work of a female in a laundry, and the judgment of the Supreme Court of Oregon is affirmed. For the above reasons, the Supreme Court rules that protective laws, like the Oregon law in question, are constitutional. The court affirms the earlier ruling.

United States Supreme Court, Justice Brewer, Muller v. State of Oregon (excerpt), 208 U.S. 412 (Washington, D.C. 1908).


As long hours, low wages, and dangerous conditions made industrial work more challenging, activists fought for laws that would protect women workers. Government representatives were generally reluctant to regulate work. They believed that businesses should negotiate directly with employees. But they did not believe this applied to women. Although more and more women were entering the workforce, popular opinion still said the government should help women be wives, mothers, and homemakers first.

The belief that women held a special place in society encouraged states to pass laws that regulated work for women. Such a law was brought before the United States Supreme Court in the case of Muller v. Oregon. Curt Muller was the owner of Grand Laundry in Portland, Oregon. He was fined $10 for forcing a female employee to work more than ten hours in one day, which was in violation of a state law that limited women’s work hours. Muller sued the State of Oregon, arguing that the state could not control the hours of his employees. In 1908, the Supreme Court heard his case.

The lawyer representing Oregon, Louis D. Brandeis, used science and medical testimony to argue that working in a laundry damaged a woman’s health. Most of the hazards he highlighted could also be applied to men. But, he argued, women had to be healthy so they could bear healthy children. Because a woman’s primary job was to be a mother, her health was a matter of public concern.

In a unanimous decision, all nine Supreme Court justices ruled in favor of the Oregon law. The decision encouraged more states to pass protective laws that controlled when and how women could work. While protective laws helped create safer work environments, they also limited options for women workers. For many, fewer hours meant less pay and harder work. Employers were eager to speed up production to get the same result in fewer hours. Muller v. Oregon also created a tremendous divide among women activists. While many believed that protective laws helped workers, others were angered by a ruling that declared men and women could never be equals and that women only existed to have children.

For more information about protective legislation for women, explore the videos below.

These videos are from “Women Have Always Worked,” a free massive open online course produced in collaboration with Columbia University.