Muller v. Oregon, 208 U.S. 412 (1908)

In Politics on 09/09/2009 at 8:58 PM

NOTES AND COMMENTS: The Muller decision essentially made the denial of certain jobs to women a constitutionally protected practice. With women being unable to work more than 10 hours in a day in a mechanical establishment, laundry or factory it would be lawful for potential employers to deny a woman a position at such an establishment should the shift be more than ten hours long. In addition to potentially making certain jobs, men only jobs the decision/opinion of the court painted women as second class citizens requiring special treatment from the law and men in general. Women were painted as helpless creatures unable to fend for themselves; and while I do approve of maximum hours legislation and the protections that stem from such laws (improved mental and physical health, and the very important work life balance), I do not approve of the sexism invoked in this law and especially in the opinion of the court.

FACTS: Oregon state law bars the employment of women in “mechanical establishments” for more than 10 hours in a day. Muller was convicted of violating this labor law, he appealed his conviction to the Oregon Supreme Court citing the Lochner decision which held maximum hour laws to be unconstitutional.

The Oregon Supreme Court upheld the law and he appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court which also upheld the constitutionality of the law, not by overruling Lochner but by differentiating Muller’s case on the basis of “the difference between the sexes”, and the role that plays in the health of women.

ISSUE: Does the state of Oregon law that forbids the employment of women in factories, laundries and other mechanical establishments for any longer than 10 hours a day violate the rights and liberties of women under the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution?

REASONING: Justice Brewer: It is the law of Oregon that women, whether married or single, have equal contractual and personal rights with men. It thus appears that they 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 that a law providing that no laborer work 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 a state, but an unreasonable, unnecessary, and arbitrary interference with the rights and liberties of the individual to contract in relation to his labor, and as such was in conflict with and void under [the Fourteenth Amendment of] the Federal Constitution. That decision is invoked by a plaintiff in error 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.

A 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.

DECISION: Affirmed.

RULE: Oregon’s limit of the working hours of women was constitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment, because it was justified by the state interest in protecting women’s health.

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