In Muller v. Oregon (1908), the Supreme Court upheld an Oregon law placing a limitation on the number of hours that women, but not men, could work per day (10). Curt Muller, the owner of a laundromat in Portland, Oregon (pictured below), was convicted of breaking the law and brought his case all the way to the Supreme Court.
For a unanimous Court, Justice Brewer wrote: “[H]istory discloses the fact that woman has always been dependent upon man. He established his control at the outset by superior physical strength, and this control in various forms, with diminishing intensity, has continued to the present… It is still true that in the struggle for subsistence she is not an equal competitor with her brother…. [H]er disposition and habits of life which will operate against a full assertion of [her personal and contractual rights]. It is impossible to close one’s eyes to the fact that she still looks to her brother and depends upon him…. It would still be true that she is so constituted that she will rest upon and look to him for protection; that her physical structure and a proper discharge of her maternal functions-having in view not merely her own health, but the well-being of the race—justify legislation to protect her from the greed as well as the passion of man.”
As RBG 👩🏻⚖️said in her amicus brief in Reed v. Reed (1971), the decision was often cited for the idea that “sex per se is a valid basis for classification” without regard to the purpose of a law OR whether the sex-based classification was rationally related to the law’s purpose. In other words: in Muller v. Oregon, the Supreme Court endorsed sex is a legitimate basis for legislative distinction. By “protecting” women (but not men) from working too much, this perpetuated stereotypes of female dependency—and held us all back.
In the Ginsburg Tapes, you’ll hear about the ways in which Ginsburg sought to dismantle this ingrained attitude of benevolent sexism brick-by-brick. Episode One comes out on January 1! In the meantime, follow me on Twitter and Instagram @ginsburgtapes for more behind-the-scenes coverage.