A woman working in an airplane assembly plant in the 1940's.
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Day 8: Mothers in the workplace


We’re jumping right in this week to investigate women entering the workplace – and later in the week, women entering public office.

Today, we start in 1908 with the landmark Supreme Court case Muller v. Oregon.

In 1905, an Oregon laundry owner named Curt Muller mandated that one of his female employees work longer than 10 hours, violating a relatively new state law prohibiting women from working more than ten hours in mechanical establishments, factories, or laundries.

The woman filed a complaint, and her case eventually made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the existing law and upheld the ten-hour limit for women.

The ruling, on its face, seemed like a labor victory for women – but it split many women’s rights advocates based on the rationale used by the Supreme Court to uphold the state’s labor law.

The Supreme Court reasoned: 

“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.”

The Court concluded:

“Perhaps the general scope and character of all these reports may be summed up in what an inspector for Hanover says: ‘The reasons for the reduction of the working day to ten hours – (a) the physical organization of women, (b) her maternal functions, (c) the rearing and education of the children, (d) the maintenance of the home – are all so important and so far reaching that the need for such reduction need hardly be discussed.”

You can read the whole case here.

A ten hour work day limit was not just a special consideration sought for women. It was a generally-desired labor standard that had been advocated for since the 1830s by both men and women. Essentialized ideas about women created the tendency to think of them as special cases and created motivation to act on behalf of their welfare. But the gains accomplished in the name of women’s welfare within the labor industry were beneficial to all workers.

A year after the Muller decision, women working in the New York garment industry organized several small strikes to protest the company trying to cut wages. Those strikes paved the way for a massive strike of at least 20,000 workers, assisted by the National Women’s Trade Union League of America. The strike ended with a settlement in 1910 that included improved wages and conditions. But not all companies signed that agreement – including the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.

A year later, on March 25, 1911, a fire broke out at the Triangle Factory. Due to inadequate infrastructure and incidents like locked exit doors on the ninth floor, the fire led to the deaths of 146 of the 500 workers, many of whom were young, immigrant women.

The tragedy had powerful implications for the labor industry, beginning some of the first meaningful workplace safety reforms for all laborers.

Assignment: What is your response to the rationale in the Muller v. Oregon case?