Muller V. Oregon (1908)


Muller v. Oregon was a Supreme Court case decided on February 24, 1908. It was based on an Oregon law that was passed in 1903 that set working hours for women. The Oregon law stated that women could not work more than ten hours a day in jobs associated with factories and laundries. The statue was brought under scrutiny when Curt Muller, an owner of a laundry facility, was found in violation. He was charged with violating the law by allowing a woman at his laundry forced to work more than 10 hours in a given work day. After being convicted and charged with a $10 fine, Curt Muller appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court. Muller claimed that the charges violated his right to freely contract under the US Constitution. During this case, the question of if the law passed violated the women equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. The attorney general Louis D. Brandeis defended the law and argued in court on ways in which working long hours is detrimental to women’s health. He also developed a brief known as the Brandeis Brief in which he listed many reasons in support of his argument as to why women were not fully equipped to work for long hours. With a 9-0 vote, the Supreme Court decided that the law passed by the state of Oregon was in fact constitutional.

First Timeline


Muller v. Oregon was decided in 1908, during the Progressive Era. A time period that began around 1890 and lasted well into the 1920s. During this particular era, Americans sought out to improve worst aspects of industrialization. This included tackling issues like workers’ health, environmental hazards and labor discrimination. As a result in, many legislators created many statutes and laws that reformed labor practices, minimum wage, and maximum work hours.

In response to keeping up with the initiative if the Progressive Era, the state of Oregon followed suit. In 1903, their Legislative Assembly adopted a new bill entitled House Bill Number 89. This bill established a ten-hour work day statute for women that worked in laundries and factories. This law was used to convict a Curt Muller, an owner of a private laundry company, of violating the statute.

The case gained national attention as it worked its way to the Supreme Court since the statute had been on trial for violating constitutional authority. According to Muller, the state had inherited police power to interfere with property and labor contract, in order to protect health and safety of its citizens.

Procedural History

On September 18, 1905 a complaint was filed at the State of Oregon Circuit Court against Curt Muller, owner of Grand Laundry. He was convicted of violating House Bill No. 89, a state statute which placed restrictions on the working hours of women. Muller was fined $10 for violating the state statute by requiring Mrs. Emma Gotcher to work more than 10 hours in a single day.

Muller later appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court, and in 1908 (date unknown) the U.S. Supreme Court heard his case. His lawyer, William D. Fenton, proclaimed that the state statute was, in fact, in violation of the 14th amendment of right to due process. The defense attorney, Louis D. Brandeis, contested that if he could prove the law was protecting health and safety of women workers, the court would sustain it.

In every effort to validate his claim, Brandeis produced and submitted a 113 page document describing the negative sociological effects of long-hour work to women’s health. It later became known as the “Brandeis Brief”. The court acknowledged the importance and significance of the brief in their published opinion. brief and upheld the constitutionality of the original Oregon law, House Bill No. 89. The United States Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the labor law and convicted Muller on February 24, 1908.


  1. Does the statute created by Oregon violate the right to freely contract under the Constitution?
  2. Does a state regulation of working hours for women violate equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment?
  3. Did Oregon surpass its police power by regulating the working hours of women in certain occupations?  

Arguments by Petitioner (or Appellant or Plaintiff or Prosecution)

To Be Added

Arguments by Respondent (or Appellee or Defendant)

To Be Added


The Supreme Court decision was unanimous, the justices voted 9-0 in favor of Oregon. The majority opinion was written by Associate Justice David Brewer. His opinion was drafted in regards to whether or not the previous law passed in Oregon violated women’s right of freedom of contract. Which was an implicit liberty protected by the due process of the Fourteenth Amendment. As a result of the Supreme Court of the United States defining women as “special”, the judgement made by Oregon’s Supreme Court was affirmed. The decision in Lochner v. New York in 1905 was cited to present the case that women did indeed fit the description of “ special because they were in need of protection to fulfill her role as a female.

Majority Opinion (Brewer)

Justice David Brewer wrote the majority opinion. In his that no women could not work more than 10 hours a day in factories and laundry.Now the question was, is the state’s statute limiting the length of a woman’s workday constitutional? The court argue that the act is not in conflict with the Federal Constitution. Women are a special class of worker that needs to be protected.The statute is within the state’s police power to protect the health of the general public because of the physical well being of women is paramount to the production of healthy offspring.

Full Text of Opinion

Decision Analysis

To Be Added

Significance / Impact

The Supreme Court had ruled in favor of Oregon, and so did the majority of the country. Although it followed incredibly sexist ideals, at the time of the decision it was seen as a great triumph for a population of women across the country. Following the precedent, multiple states created new laws and statutes that regulated wages, hours, and working conditions.

On the other side of the spectrum, the ruling was heavily criticized. The 9-0 decision created a precedent that further separated the sexes and encouraged legislature that would push women into a field of subordination. In his published opinion, Justice Brewer claimed that “[a] 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”. By making these statements in his final decision he further reduced the power of women during this time.

Muller v. Oregon was cited for a couple of cases in the decades that followed. In 1923, the Supreme Court claimed that legislation inspired by Muller v. Oregon was unconstitutional during the published decision of Adkins v. Children’s Hospital. It wasn’t until more than ten years later, in 1937 during West Coast Hotel v. Parrish, the court reversed its opinion and reverted back to its original standing.

Second Timeline

Scholarly Commentary and Debate

To Be Added

Constitutional Provisions

Amendment XIV

Section 1.

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. 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.

Government Law or Action Under Review

House Bill No. 89 (enacted by the State of Oregon’s 22nd Legislative Assembly)

Important Precedents

Important Subsequent Cases

Web Resources

Academic Books, Articles, and Law Reviews

  • Erickson, Nancy S. “Muller v. Oregon Reconsidered: The Origins of a Sex-based Doctrine of Liberty of Contract.” Labor History 30.2 (1989): 228-50. Web.
  • Helm, Nan. “Intellectual Freedom and the Oregon Legislature: Looking Back and Looking Ahead.” Or. Libr. Assoc. Q. OLA Quarterly 1.4 (1996): n. pag. Web.
  • “Master and Servant: Hours of Labor for Women: Constitutional Law.” Michigan Law Review 10.7 (1912): 574. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web.
  • “Regulating Hours of Labor of Women.” The Virginia Law Register 14.4 (1908): 316. JSTOR. Web. 11 Nov. 2016.
  • Roediger, David R. Our Own Time: The History of American Labor and the Working Day. New York City: Verso, n.d. Print.
  • Sapiro, Virginia. “The Gender Basis of American Social Policy.” Social and Moral Reform (n.d.): n. pag. Web.
  • Woloch, Nancy. Muller v. Oregon: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford of St. Martin’s, 1996. Print.


Kadedra Caldwell, Uzair Rangoonwala, Lashanah Thomas, and Perrin Williams (Fall 2016)

Tasks for Future Contributors

In the future, it would be helpful to find the exact date and year of when the case was heard in Oregon Supreme Court and United States Supreme Court.