Muller v. Oregon: A Summary

In February 19, 1903 a Statute was issued by the state of Oregon that limited the hours of work for women in factories, mechanical establishments or laundries to a maximum of ten hours. In 1905 female workers at the laundry owned by Curt Muller were ordered to work beyond the maximum 10 hours per day. A complaint issued by one of the female workers against Mr. Muller resulted in a fine imposed against the company owner.

In appealing the ruling, the case was tried by the Supreme Court with a court issued ruling in 1908 that upholds the statute of Oregon State in the protection of female workers. A brief by Louis D. Brandeis discusses the merits of the statute and are summarized below. Brandeis’ legal brief explains the following: (1) While the government upholds the right of each individual to liberty and the right to engage in labor, individual liberty can be limited in the interest of police power and the universal protection of the public (p.

9), (2) Female workers are physically weaker than male workers (p. 18), (3) Continued long hours of labor results in chronic fatigue that negatively affects the general health of individuals (p. 28), (4) the negative health effects of long work hours to women also negatively affects their reproductive system and ability to bear children, ability to care for their children and as a secondary result affects the health of children born to women who suffer chronic fatigue (p. 36-42), (5) Long hours of labor leads to an increase in the occurrence of accidents within the workplace (p. 45-46), (6) The inability of women to bare healthy children or adequately care for their children because of chronic fatigue has a negative effect on society (p. 47 – 55). In Brandeis’s brief he describes the necessity of the 10 hour statute in terms of protecting the individual woman due to health concerns as well as in avoidance of possible injury due to fatigue, the protection of the woman’s husband and children or interest of bearing children in the future and finally in protecting society since women as seen as the primary care givers.

In protecting a woman laborer’ health Brandeis explains that prolonged hours in itself, regardless of gender, can negatively affect the physical well being of a person. He also explains that while both men and women can suffer physical fatigue, the biological make up of a women, renders her weaker in terms of stamina and physical strength, making the negative effect more prominent and potent in women. In protecting the woman’s family and children or future children, argues that apart from having to work in the factories, women also labor at home for the care of their families.

Women who suffer fatigue and physical weakness due to long work hours, has reduced abilities to continue their work and labor at home and thus poorly cares for their families and children. Similarly, Brandies cites a relation between women who work long hours and women who cannot bear children, explaining that prolonged work hours negatively affect reproduction. Finally Brandeis goes so far as claiming that the protections of women against long hours of labor, thereby the protection of women’s health and ability to reproduce also protects society as a whole.

Brandeis explains that women as primary care givers are the shapers of society in that they provide the nurturing necessary to protect the health and well-being of children and fathers. As such, if women are able to care for their children properly, then society will be composed of healthy well-nurtured individuals. In the end, the Supreme Court ruled against Muller because it was seen that the protection of women against long hours of work, is a protection deemed necessary to preserve the health of women, protect the woman’s family and also because it benefits society as a whole.

The Supreme Court ruling in Curt Muller v State of Oregon clearly exemplifies protective labor legislation for women. This case was a significant representation of how police power can usurp individual liberties in the protection of all members of society, specifically in the regulation of businesses and industry. It also exemplifies protective labor regulation in that women laborers are prevented from possibly inflicting physical harm to themselves – a protection deemed necessary because of their role as care givers in the family.

While the primary concern for the regulation of work hours for women was the protection of female workers from health problems associated with prolonged labor in factories, machinery or laundry it also asserts the primary role of women in the family as caregiver. The decision in Muller v Oregon also acknowledges that women continue a form of labor in the household after their work hours as employees are over. As such it becomes necessary to preserve the health and stamina of the woman who not only performs labor in their employment but in the home as well.

Similarly this proclamation also asserts that while women are given liberties to enter into contract as any man, she inherently has a physical difference from a man, differences that render her not of the same strength and ability. In some jobs, women are an unable to exert the same effort or perform in the same manner as a man. By upholding the statute of the state of Oregon, the United States Supreme Court also upholds that there is a class difference between men and women.

The biological and physical differences between men and women constitute the need to protect women in the demands placed on them in the workplace. This protection is intended not only to protect the general health of the woman but also their reproductive ability and ability to care for children. Finally, this ruling also upholds that women are generally seen as the primary caregivers in a family and therefore also seen as the custodian of future citizens equivocal to future society.

Works Cited

Brandeis, L. D. “Women in industry: decision of the United States Supreme Court in Curt Muller v. the State of Oregon: Upholding the constitutionality of the Oregon ten hour law for women and brief for the State of Oregon. ” New York, Reprinted for the National Consumer’s League, 1908. Harvard University library open collections program. 1 Mar. 2009. <http://pds. lib. harvard. edu/pds/view/2574849? n=10&s=6>