Muller v. Oregon: Summary & Case Brief

Instructor: Mary Deering

Mary has a Master's Degree in History with 18 advanced hours in Government. She has taught college History and Government courses.

Learn about Muller vs. Oregon, a landmark Supreme Court case with a mixed legacy. Meet Louis Brandeis, the young attorney who used social science to argue that women workers needed special protection due to the inherent difference between women and men.

Background of the Case

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, life in America shifted from a largely rural style of living where most Americans lived and worked on farms or ranches to an increasingly urban lifestyle where most Americans lived and worked in industrial cities. This shift brought along with it a number of new challenges, particularly in regard to family life and gender roles. The ideal role for women of the time was to work inside their homes, keeping the house clean, preparing the meals, and caring for their children; however, with the rising cost of living in cities, many women entered the workforce and helped support their families by working in factories, often for fourteen to sixteen hours at a time.

Many individuals, including the Progressives, a grouping of various reform minded individuals concerned about the changes in American life, proposed new laws that limited and discouraged women from entering into employment. After all, if women weren't in the homes at least some of the day, who would be educating the children and keeping the home clean?

A group of laundry workers in Virginia around 1900
Photograph of laundry workers in 1900, Virginia

Many states instituted laws that specifically restricted women to working in specific environments or limited them to working fewer hours per day than male workers. Although many Progressive laws were made with good intentions, some Americans found the limits to be overly restrictive. At the center of the problem was a critical question: can the government tell you how much you can work?

In the case that became known as Muller vs. Oregon, the Supreme Court came up with an answer to this critical question. A laundry owner named Curt Muller was fined for violating an Oregon law that restricted women to a ten-hour workday. Muller appealed the fine first to the local court and eventually to the Supreme Court of the United States. Concerned about keeping working hour limits valid, the National Consumers' League, a progressive group committed to keeping minimum wage laws and maximum working hour laws in effect, hired a well-known attorney named Louis Brandeis to argue the case in front of the Supreme Court.

Louis Brandeis, around the time of the Muller case
Photograph of Louis Brandeis

The Decision

Brandeis wrote a unique legal brief, which later became known as the Brandeis brief, in which there were only two pages of legal arguments followed by over one hundred pages of statistics and expert opinions from social scientists who argued that women were psychically, mentally, and emotionally unable to work for more than ten hours at a time. His legal strategy paid off.

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court concluded that the state of Oregon had a vested interest in the well being of its women citizens and as such could place limits on the number of hours that they could work. In writing its opinion, the Court noted that it had already ruled similar restrictions on male workers to be an unconstitutional violation of their rights. Women, however, according to Brandeis and the Court, needed special protections due to their special status as mothers and wives. The Court ordered that the laws of Oregon, and other similar laws in other states, were a justifiable way of making sure that women could still fulfill the role of wife and mother by having a limit to their number of working hours outside the home.

The Supreme Court of the United States during the Muller case
Supreme Court in Muller case

Legacy of the Case

Today, the decision in Muller v. Oregon is viewed with mixed results. The notion that workers must be protected from their employers by limiting the number of hours they can be mandated to work is often seen as a positive aspect of this case. Today, workers enjoy many protections in the form of minimum wages, overtime, and enforced break times, all of which came about after the Muller case. On the other hand, the Muller decision clearly states that women are different than men and in need of special protection from the state. For many modern Americans, the idea that women cannot choose their own working conditions, while men can do so, is nothing less than gender discrimination.

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