Protective Labor Legislation

Jane Addams

Jane Addams, Progressive-era reformer

Protective labor legislation that governed types of employment, night work, hours, wages, and conditions for women workers laid a framework for the way society treated female laborers in the twentieth century.  Sex-specific labor laws contributed to a construct of women as fragile and weak.  Protective labor legislation activists, like Jane Addams, led the movement on the basis that states needed to shelter women from physically and morally dangerous employment. Since women could not vote, protectionists wanted to put laws in place for women to protect them from workplace evils. Although some activists feared that protective labor legislation would accentuate the idea  that women were different, many hoped that protectionism would grant women state-acknowledged worker’s rights.  In Muller v. Oregon (1908), United States Supreme Court justices ruled that women workers needed protection.  They based their decision on the premise that women were an inherently different and inferior class of workers from men due to their disadvantageous physical structure and reproductive capabilities. (Muller v. Oregon, 208 U.S. 416, 1908)  This decision had important implications for women workers, as it enshrined their dependence, placed them under state control, restricted self-rule, and reinforced sexual differences between men and women. Although protectionism had been put in place to help women, in the end it had negative consequences for them.

Lehrer, Susan.  Origins of Protective Labor Legislation for Women 1905-1925.  Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.

Woloch, Nancy.  Muller v. Oregon: A Brief History with Documents.  Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1996.