Relevant Facts: The State of Oregon passed a law limiting the hours that women may work at certain locations in a single day. Curt Muller owned a laundry business, and was convicted of violating the law by having his female employees work for more than ten hours in a single day. Muller brought suit, challenging the constitutionality of the Oregon statute on three separate grounds. First, he contended that the law as constituted abridged freedom of contract. Next, he argued that the statute did not apply equally to all, instead seeking to regulate only a class of workers. Finally, he maintained that the legislature exceeded its police power in prohibiting conduct that was not unlawful and bore no relation to the health, safety, and welfare of the public.
Issue: Does a state exceed its police power by regulating the working hours of women in certain occupations? Does a state regulation of working hours for women violate equal protection? Does the statute in question unconstitutionally violate the right to freely contract?
Holding: No, the statute as written is constitutional. Regulation of working hours is within the traditional police powers of the state, freedom of contract is subject to police power regulations, and legislatures may adopt legislation that reflects the differing capacities of the sexes without violating Constitutional guarantees.
Reasoning: Justice Brewer, writing for the Court, began with a discussion of the relative legal parity of men and women under the law. While differences remaining, he explained that both sexes were equally entitled to contract for labor and have coextensive personal rights. Notwithstanding that equality, or the plain guarantee of equal protection, the Court may nonetheless consider the factual question of differences in physical ability as it relates to the justification for differing regulations. The differing ability of women to maintain long periods of time at labor on their feet, as compared to men, may justify differences in regulation pertaining to that labor. Furthermore, the state has a valid interest in protecting women separately, as their continued health is important to maintenance of the child-bearing role and with that role the continued well-being of the race. After a continued discussion of the legal distinctions between the sexes, Justice Brewer suggested that even were the state to remove all legal barriers, women may well still depend on men for protection. Judicial recognition of differing capacities is sufficient to justify differing regulations in light of those distinctions, and thus the equal protection claim must fall. Similarly, the right of the state to exercise its police power must be viewed in light of the need to protect women and their important social role within the community. Regulating labor in such a way to protect their health is within the power of the state, and the statute constitutes a valid exercise of that power. Finally, with very little discussion, the Court reminded that freedom of contract is not an absolute guarantee, subject to regulations that fall within the police powers of the state. The statute in question, seeking to protect the health of female workers in certain occupations, is a reasonable regulation in light of the valid state interest in protecting their health.
Conclusion: While the holding here changed dramatically as laws quickly changed to provide greater protection of equal rights, the Court here determined that states may regulate the sexes differently in matters of labor. The Court did not revisit earlier cases striking down restrictions on the freedom of contract, but rather distinguished them on the basis of necessary protections for women alone.