In 1908 the state of Oregon
established a law requiring a maximum ten-hour workday for women
in laundries and factories. Business owners predictably attacked it as needless government
interference in violation of the principles of laissez faire
that had led to rapid industrial and financial expansion. The trial battled its way upward until it was heard by the Supreme Court
. The case proved to be more than just a conflict over an individual law, but marked the turning point for government detatchment from the labor market and heralded the beginning of the Progressive
era of social legislation.
In the case Lochner v. New York, the Supreme Court had dismantled a state attempt to establish universal ten-hour workdays for bakers on the grounds that it bore no relation to the worker's health or safety. Although business owners believed this to be the decisive last word on attempts to regulate work hours, they did not recognize the door that had been created for the Progressive cause. If a social legislation could be proven to be beneficial for a worker's health or safety, then under the precedent of Lochner v. New York it would seem acceptable on Constitutional grounds.
It was from this approach that Louis D. Brandeis attacked . His brief spent very little time concerning traditional legal precedents, rather it provided page after page of studies and statistics showing that longer working hours adversely affected women's health. He avoided the ruling of Lochner v. New York by relying on the law's application only to women while stressing heavily that it met the Court's test for necessity of government interference. While by today's standards this call for special protection seems discriminatory, Brandeis did not have any particular beliefs in the inferiority of women. He simply used the most effective legal argument for the time.
The Court's rule in favor of Oregon opened the way for further social legislation that had until recently been blocked under Constitutional grounds. Reforms concerning sanitation, working conditions, working hours, and wages had a fair chance at surviving the attacks of conservative business owners with the precedent of Muller v. Oregon to cushion them. The concept of an employer's responsibility to society slowly replaced laissez faire capitalism, albeit with fits and starts.
Bailey, Thomas A., Kennedy, David M., Cohen, Lizabeth. The American Pageant: A History of the Republic. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998.
http://usinfo.state.gov/usa/infousa/facts/democrac/30.htm - Backgrounder on the Court Opinion on Muller v. Oregon