• Last updated on November 11, 2022

Although committed to the freedom of contract doctrine, the Supreme Court accepted that the special needs of women justified a law limiting the number of hours worked.

Influenced by the ProgressiveProgressivism movement, the Oregon legislature in 1903 established a maximum of ten hours per workday for women working in factories and laundries. Curt Muller, owner of a laundry, was convicted of a misdemeanor and fined ten dollars for requiring an employee to work more than ten hours. Referring to Lochner v. New York (1905),[case]Lochner v. New York[Lochner v. New York] Muller argued that the law violated the liberty of employers and workers to enter into free agreements about the terms of employment. The National Consumers’ League and Louis D. Brandeis assisted the state in defending the law before the Supreme Court. Brandeis prepared an extraordinary brief, known as the Brandeis Brief,Brandeis Brief which contained two pages of legal argument and more than a hundred pages of empirical evidence demonstrating that long hours of hard labor endangered the health of women. Based on the precedent of Holden v. Hardy (1898),[case]Holden v. Hardy[Holden v. Hardy] Brandeis expected that the Court would uphold the law if persuaded that it was justified in terms of the special health requirements of women.Contract, freedom ofPolice powersWorkers’ rightsMaximum-hour laws;Muller v. Oregon[Muller v. Oregon]Contract, freedom ofPolice powersWorkers’ rights

The Court unanimously upheld Oregon’s law. Writing for the Court, Justice David J. BrewerBrewer, David J.;Muller v. Oregon[Muller v. Oregon] indicated that the justices had been influenced by “the very copious” information that Brandeis had presented in his brief. Because of the “physical structure” and “maternal functions” of women, Brewer concluded that the state could legitimately exercise its police powers to restrict their hours of labor. Trying to harmonize this decision with Lochner, he explained that Oregon’s law, if applied to men, would be an “unreasonable, unnecessary, and arbitrary interference with the right and liberty of the individual to contract in relation to his labor.”

In subsequent cases, the Court did not always approve of laws providing for the special protection of women. In Adkins v. Children’s Hospital[case]Adkins v. Children’s Hospital[Adkins v. Children’s Hospital] (1923), for example, it struck down a minimum-wage law for women. In the so-called constitutional revolution of 1937, the Court abandoned its freedom of contract interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Most of the analysis in Muller, therefore, is of historical interest only, although there are other areas in which the Court has approved of laws recognizing gender distinctions. Muller remains famous primarily because of the success of the Brandeis Brief, which continues to be a model for informing courts of the social and economic needs for reform legislation.[case]Muller v. Oregon[Muller v. Oregon]

Adkins v. Children’s Hospital

Brandeis Brief

Contract, freedom of

Due process, substantive

Holden v. Hardy

Lochner v. New York


West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish

Categories: History