Today in labor history: Supreme Court strikes down min. wage for women

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On April 2, 1923 the Supreme Court declared a Washington, D.C., law establishing a minimum wage for women unconstitutional, saying it violated the "due process" clause of the Fifth Amendment.

Sounding like Chief Justice John Roberts during questioning on the Defense of Marriage Act last week (Roberts argued gay people already have equality because of their "political lobby,") Justice George Sutherland wrote in the majority opinion, "...women had become so nearly the equal of men that special safeguards to protect them in making contracts for their labor were no longer needed."

It was only four years earlier when women finally won the right to vote after decades of campaigning. Yet, former U.S. Labor Department Women's Bureau Director Mary Anderson said presciently after the ruling, "Public opinion, I think, can be depended on in the long run to decide that no employer has a moral right, even though the Supreme Court decision gives a legal right, to pay women less than a living wage."

The Adkins v. Children's Hospital 5-3 ruling (with one abstention) set up battle lines in the Supreme Court between progressive reformers versus reactionary free marketers, which would play out during Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal administration. Four of the five justices in the majority became known as the "Four Horsemen" declaring unconstitutional government efforts to create jobs and help farmers, workers and families during the Great Depression.

Mass movements demanding economic relief and labor rights grew, and in 1937 the Supreme Court declared constitutional a Washington State minimum wage law in West Coast Hotel vs. Parrish.

Today an overwhelming majority of Americans support raising the minimum wage to at least $10 an hour. In his recent State of the Union address, President Obama called for raising the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour.

Photo: National Consumers League