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Muller v. Oregon A Question of Women’s Rights
Background Information • On February 19, 1903, the legislature of the State of Oregon passed an act stating: • 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. The hours of work may be so arranged as to permit the employment of females at any time so that they shall not work more than ten hours during the twenty-four hours of any one day.
Background continued • Sec. 3 made a violation of the provisions of the prior sections a misdemeanor subject to a fine of not less than $10 nor more than $25. • The law was designed to protect women’s health because their ability to produce healthy offspring was a vital interest of the state.
The Case • On September 18, 1905, information was filed in the State of Oregon charging that Joe Haselbock, supervisor of the Grand Laundry in Portland, OR (owned by Curt Muller) required a female worker, Mrs. E. Gotcher, to work more than 10 hours on September 4th.
Verdict and Appeals • A trial resulted in a verdict against the defendant, who was sentenced to pay a fine of $10. • Muller appealed to the Supreme Court of the State which affirmed the conviction. • He then appealed to the United States Supreme Court.
US Supreme Court • It had been decided by the State Supreme Court that the law did not violate State law. • When brought to the US Supreme Court, the question before the justices was whether or not the law violated the 14th Amendment’s right of people to make their own contracts.
Fourteenth Amendment • No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws
Muller’s Argument • Oregon’s law violates the 14th Amendment because the statute does not apply equally to all persons. • The kinds of work prescribed are not unlawful, nor are they declared to be immoral or dangerous to the public health; nor can such a law be sustained on the ground that it is designed to protect women on account of their sex. • There is no necessary or reasonable connection between the limitation prescribed by the act and the public health, safety, or welfare.
Unanimous Opinion • A unanimous opinion was given by Justice David J. Brewer. • They decided in favor of the State of Oregon and its ability to regulate the number of hours worked by women. • This decision put a woman's child-bearing ability and stability of her family over her rights as a worker.
Justice Brewer’s Remarks: • "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."
Effect • Progressives were happy with this outcome. • Equal-rights feminists were not because it upheld stereotype gender roles and restricted women’s financial ability.