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Mon Feb 18, 2013, 02:49 PM


The Epic, Surprisingly Sexist Fight That Brought the Minimum Wage to America

This is a great article.

The Epic, Surprisingly Sexist Fight That Brought the Minimum Wage to America
By Conor Friedersdorf

Feb 18 2013, 6:00 AM ET 15

Guaranteeing workers 25 cents an hour two decades, a public scandalized by prostitution, a states'-rights rebellion, a Great Depression, a Supreme Court battle, and a lot of patriarchy.

For a fourteen-year period in American history, minimum-wage laws were officially verboten in every last state of the union, having been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court on April 9, 1923. The case, Adkins v. Children's Hospital, concerned a Washington D.C. law that established a minimum wage for women and children employed within the city. Two appellants challenged it: a hospital that employed a number of adult women, some at wages below the minimum; and a 23-year-old woman employed by the Congress Hall Hotel as an elevator operator. Earning $35 per month plus two meals each day, the elevator operator avowed that her "work was light and healthful, the hours short, with surroundings clean and moral," and that her employer would be glad to retain her, as she ardently wished, but only at her present wage.

Justice George Sutherland wrote the majority opinion, concurring with the appellant's argument that a minimum wage for women and children "authorizes an unconstitutional interference with the freedom of contract," in violation of the Fifth Amendment's due process clause. Social-justice advocates regarded the decision as a major blow and an indefensible act of judicial activism. In ensuing years, it would frustrate at least a dozen state legislatures and multiple presidents, and help fuel a historic attempt to undermine the U.S. Supreme Court. It would also be hailed by its defenders as a sensible defense of individual liberty in employment.

What's largely forgotten are the early feminists who hailed the 1923 decision as a heartening victory. They'd been perturbed, fifteen years earlier, by the decision in Muller v. Oregon, a case that pitted a laundry owner against a state law that forbade working female employees longer than 10 hours per day. Justice David Brewer wrote in his majority opinion that the labor protection law passed constitutional muster because "history discloses the fact that woman has always been dependent upon man," and like a minor, she requires "special care that her rights may be preserved.... In the struggle for subsistence she is not an equal competitor to her brother.... She is properly placed in a class by herself, and legislation designed for her protection may be sustained, even when like legislation is not necessary for men and could not be sustained."


Take sides in their disagreement as you will. What's clear, in hindsight, is that the 1923 decision outlawing the minimum wage and the Supreme Court's 1937 reversal bookend a period worth revisiting as President Obama pushes Congress to adopt a new $9-per-hour floor on labor. We're still having many of the same arguments minimum wage advocates and opponents had back then. But it is fascinating and clarifying to see them unfold in a different cultural context -- one that upsets our preconceived narratives, dislodges our ideological assumptions, and reminds us how surprisingly, complicatedly intertwined this issue once was with women's rights.



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