Muller v. Oregon

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

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, unions and other reform organizations worked to pass laws to limit the hours companies could ask their employees to work, typically to no more than ten hours a day and only six days a week.  Reformers felt that employers were taking advantage of people who needed work. Others disagreed, arguing that workers should be able to negotiate for themselves.  In other words, if there were workers willing to take jobs requiring long hours, employers should not be prevented from offering those jobs. 
A Supreme Court case in 1905 convinced reformers that they could not pass laws with blanket limitations of the work day, and some shifted their efforts, working to pass laws that would at least limit women's work hours.  Oregon was one state where they succeeded in passing such a law, and when Curt Muller, owner of the Grand Laundry in Portland, required his female employees work longer than ten hours a day, his county court fined him $10 for breaking the state law.  He appealed, arguing that the Oregon law was unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court unanimously agreed that Muller was wrong and that the Constitution did not prevent Oregon from limiting women's work hours.

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

Mr. Justice David J. Brewer, writing for a unanimous Court:

{1} It is the law of Oregon that women, whether married or single, have equal contractual and personal rights with men. . . . The wife can deal not only with her separate property, acquired from whatever source, in the same manner as her husband can with property belonging to him, but that she may make contracts and incur liabilities, and the same may be enforced against her, the same as if she were a femme sole. There is now no residuum of civil disability resting upon her which is not recognized as existing against the husband. . . .  It thus appears that, putting to one side the elective franchise, in the matter of personal and contractual rights, they stand on the same plane as the other sex. . . .

{2} [Nevertheless,] 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 wellbeing of woman becomes an object of public interest and care in order to preserve the strength and vigor of the race.

{3} 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, and this control in various forms, with diminishing intensity, has continued to the present. 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. Education was long denied her, and while now the doors of the schoolroom are opened and her opportunities for acquiring knowledge are great, yet, even with that and the consequent increase of capacity for business affairs, it is still true that, in the struggle for subsistence, she is not an equal competitor with her brother. Though limitations upon personal and contractual rights may be removed by legislation, there is that in her disposition and habits of life which will operate against a full assertion of those rights. She will still be where some legislation to protect her seems necessary to secure a real equality of right. Doubtless there are individual exceptions, and there are many respects in which she has an advantage over him; but, looking at it from the viewpoint of the effort to maintain an independent position in life, she is not upon an equality. 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, and could not be sustained. It is impossible to close one's eyes to the fact that she still looks to her brother, and depends upon him. Even though all restrictions on political, personal, and contractual rights were taken away, and she stood, so far as statutes are concerned, upon an absolutely equal plane with him, it would still be true that she is so constituted that she will rest upon and look to him for protection; that her physical structure and a proper discharge of her maternal functions -- having in view not merely her own health, but the wellbeing of the race -- justify legislation to protect her from the greed, as well as the passion, of man. The limitations which this statute places upon her contractual powers, 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. 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 wellbeing 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. 

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