Muller v. Oregon

Muller v. Oregon

Argued January 15, 1908
Decided February 24, 1908
Full case name Curt Muller, Plaintiff in Error v. The State of Oregon. Appellant's claim: Oregon's 1903 maximum hours law is unconstitutional.

208 U.S. 412 (more)

28 S. Ct. 324;52 L. Ed. 551;1908 U.S. LEXIS 1452
Prior history Defendant convicted; affirmed, 85 P. 855 (Or. 1906)
Subsequent history None
Oregon's limit on the working hours of women was constitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment, because it was justified by the strong state interest in protecting women's health. Supreme Court of Oregon affirmed.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Brewer, joined by unanimous
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. XIV; 1903 Or. Laws p. 148

Muller v. Oregon, 208 U.S. 412 (1908), was a landmark decision in United States Supreme Court history, as it was used to justify both sex discrimination and usage of labor laws during the time period. The case upheld Oregon state restrictions on the working hours of women as justified by the special state interest in protecting women's health. The ruling had important implications for protective labor legislation.[1] 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.


Curt Muller, the owner of a laundry business, was convicted of violating Oregon labor laws by making 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.


In Justice David Josiah Brewer's unanimous opinion in Muller, 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.

"When the constitutionality of the Oregon ten-hour law for women was challenged, Florence Kelley committed The National Consumers League to it's defense.As Kathryn Kish Sklar has explained, NCL's research director, Josephine Goldmark, prepared a pathbreakng brief, of which only 2 pages consisted of traditional abstract legal reasoning, and over 100 pages offered sociological evidence, Her brother-in-law, the future Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, argued the case in the U.S. Supreme Court. Goldmark and Brandeis's innovation would come to be known as a "Brandeis Brief," and many others would later be modeled on it."[2]

Goldmark and her Team were able to assemble 98 out of the 118 pages of the Brief, meaning much of the credit for the brief goes to her.[3]

Significance of the case

Though with the state winning in shorter hours for women, and with other Feminist groups such as the National Consumer league, of which both Florence Kelley and Josephine Goldmark where apart of as feminists, equal-rights feminists were against this because it worked so heavily on the separation of the sexes into two stereotyped gender-roles and restricted women's financial independence. This labor law gave white women more protection, but it excluded women of color, food processors, agricultural workers, and white collar educated 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 did not change until the New Deal days in the 1930s. It was also a watershed in the development of maternalist reforms.[4][5][6][7]

The ruling was criticized because it set a precedent to use sex differences, and in particular women's child-bearing capacity, as a basis for separate legislation, supporting the idea that the family has priority over women's rights as workers.[1]

"Until the late 1930s, when the Fair Labor Standards Act created gender-neutral workplace protections, the Equal Rights Amendment championed by the NWP would have demolished the gains for women workers won in Muller. This dispute between feminists who valued protection and feminists who valued equality continued until the latter group gained the upper hand in the 1970s."[8]

See also


  1. 1 2 Baron, Ava (1981). "Protective Labor Legislation and the Cult of Domesticity". Journal of Family Issues. SAGE Publications. 2 (1): 2538. doi:10.1177/0192513X8100200103.
  2. 415 Protecting Women Wage-Workers, Women's America, Refocusing the Past.
  3. Ginsburg, Ruth Bader. "Lessons Learned from Louis D. Brandeis | BrandeisNOW." BrandeisNOW. N.p., 28 Jan. 2016. Web. 28 Sept. 2016.
  4. Brandeis, L. D. (1907). The Brandeis Brief. Retrieved January 27, 2010, from
  5. Woloch, N. (1996). Muller v. Oregon: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press.
  6. Barney, S. L. (1999). "Maternalism and the Promotion of Scientific Medicine during the Industrial Transformation of Appalachia, 1880-1930." NWSA Journal, 11(3), 68–92.
  7. Koven, S., & Michel, S. (1993). Mothers of a New World, Maternalist Politics and the Origins of Welfare States (). Routledge.
  8. "Muller v. State of Oregon." Open Collections Program: Women Working,. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Sept. 2016.

Further reading

External links

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