Adkins v. Children's Hospital

Excerpt from the full text at the Legal Information Institute at Cornell University Law School.

In the early twentieth century, unions and other reform organizations succeeded in passing minimum wage laws in a dozen states and in the District of Columbia.  As had been the case for legislation limiting work hours, some reformers believed that passing minimum wage legislation for women was more feasible than passing laws to apply to the entire workforce.

Congress, which had jurisdiction over the District of Columbia, established a Wage Board in 1918 to set minimum wage standards for women workers in the District. After the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, the Children's Hospital in D.C. took the Wage Board to court, arguing that it was unconstitutional for Congress to interfere with the wages workers were willing to accept.  When a lower court agreed, the Wage Board's chairman, Jesse C. Adkins, appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court supported the lower court's opinion that Congress did not have the constitutional right to set minimum wages for women.

(NB: Paragraph numbers apply to this excerpt, not the original source.)

Mr. Justice George Sutherland, writing for the majority:

{1}In the Muller case, the validity of an Oregon statute, forbidding the employment of any female in certain industries more than ten hours during anyone day was upheld. The decision proceeded upon the theory that the difference between the sexes may justify a different rule respecting hours of labor in the case of women than in the case of men. It is pointed out that these consist in differences of physical structure, especially in respect of the maternal functions, and also in the fact that, historically, woman has always been dependent upon man, who has established his control by superior physical strength. The cases of Riley, Miller, and Bosley follow in this respect the Muller case. But the ancient inequality of the sexes, otherwise than physical, as suggested in the Muller case . . . has continued "with diminishing intensity." In view of the great -- not to say revolutionary -- changes which have taken place since that utterance, in the contractual, political and civil status of women, culminating in the Nineteenth Amendment, it is not unreasonable to say that these differences have now come almost, if not quite, to the vanishing point. In this aspect of the matter, while the physical differences must be recognized in appropriate cases, and legislation fixing hours or conditions of work may properly take them into account, we cannot accept the doctrine that women of mature age, sui juris, require or may be subjected to restrictions upon their liberty of contract which could not lawfully be imposed in the case of men under similar circumstances. To do so would be to ignore all the implications to be drawn from the present day trend of legislation, as well as that of common thought and usage, by which woman is accorded emancipation from the old doctrine that she must be given special protection or be subjected to special restraint in her contractual and civil relationships. . . .

{2}What is sufficient to supply the necessary cost of living for a woman worker and maintain her in good health and protect her morals is obviously not a precise or unvarying sum -- not even approximately so. The amount will depend upon a variety of circumstances: the individual temperament, habits of thrift, care, ability to buy necessaries intelligently, and whether the woman live alone or with her family. To those who practice economy, a given sum will afford comfort, while to those of contrary habit the same sum will be wholly inadequate. The cooperative economics of the family group are not taken into account though they constitute an important consideration in estimating the cost of living. . .   The relation between earnings and morals is not capable of standardization. It cannot be shown that well paid women safeguard their morals more carefully than those who are poorly paid. Morality rests upon other considerations than wages. . . . As a means of safeguarding morals . . . [minimum wage legislation,] in our opinion, is without reasonable basis.

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