Ironically, the desire to exalt women’s role within the home did much to inspire the reinvigoration of the suffrage movement. Many of the era’s experiments in public policy arose from the conviction that the state had an obligation to protect women and children. Female reformers helped to launch a mass movement for direct government action to improve the living standards of poor mothers and children. Laws providing for mothers’ pensions (state aid to mothers of young children who lacked male support) spread rapidly after 1910. The pensions tended to be less than generous, and local eligibility requirements opened the door to unequal treatment (white widows benefited the most, single mothers were widely discriminated against, and black women were almost entirely excluded). “Matemalist” reforms like mothers’ pensions rested on the assumption that the government should encourage women’s capacity for bearing and raising children and enable them to be economically independent at the same time. Both feminists and believers in conventional domestic roles supported such measures. The former hoped that these laws would subvert women’s dependence on men, the latter that they would strengthen traditional families and the mother-child bond.
In 1893, Colorado became the first state to allow women to vote. Here well-dressed women wait to vote alongside men in a 1907 election in Denver.
Other Progressive legislation recognized that large numbers of women did in fact work outside the home, but defined them as a dependent group (like children) in need of state protection in ways male workers were not. In 1908, in the landmark case of Muller v. Oregon, Louis D. Brandeis filed a famous brief citing scientific and sociological studies to demonstrate that because they had less strength and endurance than men, long horns of labor were dangerous for women, while their unique ability to bear children gave the government a legitimate interest in their working conditions. Persuaded by Brandeis’s argument, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the constitutionality of an Oregon law setting maximum working hours for women.
Thus, three years after the notorious Lochner decision invalidating a New York law limiting the working hours of male bakers (discussed in Chapter 16), the Court created the first large breach in “liberty of contract” doctrine. But the cost was high: at the very time that women in unprecedented numbers were entering the labor market and earning college degrees, Brandeis’s brief and the Court’s opinion solidified the view of women workers as weak, dependent, and incapable of enjoying the same economic rights as men. By 1917, thirty states had enacted laws limiting the hours of labor of female workers. Many women derived great benefit from these laws; others saw them as an infringement on their freedom.
Louis D. Brandeis, Progressive reformer and advocate of the labor movement, was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1916 by President Woodrow Wilson.
While the maternalist agenda built gender inequality into the early foundations of the welfare state, the very use of government to regulate working conditions called into question basic assumptions concerning liberty of contract. Although not all reformers were willing to take the step, it was easy to extend the idea of protecting women and children to demand that government better the living and working conditions of men as well, by insuring them against the impact of unemployment, old age, ill health, and disability. Brandeis himself insisted that government should concern itself with the health, income, and future prospects of all its citizens.