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This Day in Labor History: March 14, 1895

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On March 14, 1895, the Illinois Supreme Court rejected the state’s eight hour law for women in Ritchie v. The People of the State of Illinois. It was another in the key moments of the Gilded Age that the courts came down sharply on the side of employers, using freedom of contract doctrine as a way to ignore the incredible power disparities between the wealthy and the poor. What is notable about this period is that there were plenty of times when state legislatures sought to make some changes to this, such as in Illinois. But the courts were determined to banish all of them to the dustbin of failed reforms.

In 1893, Illinois passed a law to regulate the garment trade. The garment trade was perhaps the most exploitative of all the industries, with workers laboring in sweatshop conditions with no rights at all and the expectation that they would work as long as their bosses told them. Meanwhile, in Chicago people such as Jane Addams and Florence Kelley were now exposing the real lives of these workers to the middle and upper classes. No Haymarket anarchists were these women. No, they were the type that a lot of people would listen to. And the stories they told of the horrors of life for these workers were chilling.

So Illinois acted. The 1893 law outlawed sweatshops. It created a series of factory inspectors and Florence Kelley got the job to head it. The law also created the eight-hour day for women. Now, in recent decades there have been controversial takes over these Progressive Era shorter hours for women laws. Some feminists, as this goes back to the right-wing and pro-capitalist Alice Paul, saw these laws as discriminatory toward women. But this missed the point of what people such as Kelley and later Frances Perkins and Eleanor Roosevelt and others were trying to do. They were using women’s status in society as mothers to crack the door of hours legislation that they hoped to expand to men. Yes, it reflected the sexism of the time but that doesn’t make the strategy used by these legendary Progressive Era women sexist. It just made sense to get something on the books.

Chicago businessmen realized what the eight-hour day for women meant: eight hours for men too. So they acted. They formed the Illinois Manufacturers Association shortly after the passage of the law. This became the National Association of Manufacturers in 1895, if you need a bit of a primer of just what evil was brewing in these Chicago boardrooms. They sought to challenge the law. William C. Ritchie, a box manufacturer, led the lawsuit. He convinced a couple of his female employees to testify against the law. Not all workers have ever supported any law and many are easily fooled by the idea, in this case, that shorter days would mean less money. The employers argued that the law violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In the Gilded Age, like the New Gilded Age, the courts would reinterpret the Fourteenth Amendment to protect corporations but not Black people.

Kelley and her lawyers argued on the other side that long hours for women hurt their health and made childbearing and childraising more difficult. This was the beginning of the arguments about women and work that would eventually bear fruit in Muller v. Oregon in 1908. But the social science at the heart of Muller was still nascent in 1895. In any case, the judges weren’t convinced.

In Ritchie, the state Supreme Court threw out the eight-hour day requirement based on the idea that it violated the Due Process Clause. They claimed it discriminated against women by forcing them to only work 8 hours. This is how the minds of these Gilded Age justice worked–real oppression was limiting the time women could slave over a garment. Moreover, Illinois had a fairly long tradition to expanding work for women. In 1867, the state had passed a law that allowed women to work overtime. In 1872, it passed a law barring someone from an occupation based on their sex (as if that was enforced) and then in 1874, a law that allowed women to sue and be sued. Now, we can think of these laws as expanding rights and maybe they were. Certainly some of them were anyway. But like any law, they can be interpreted in nefarious ways and in this case the employers and their buddies on the state supreme court interpreted them as a way to cut off the nascent move to shorten the workday.

Florence Kelley was outraged, noting “the measure to guarantee the negro freedom from oppression
has become an insuperable obstacle to the protection of women and children.” She became obsessed with overturning Ritchie, which eventually led to her work on Muller. There were legal people supportive of these restrictions. Noted the Yale Law Journal in 1895. “[t]he incessant jar and rumble of machinery” could injure a woman’s ability to reproduce, and it cannot be doubted that it is the duty of the state to protect posterity.” Now, yes, this is a limiting doctrine and, at the time, was based on Social Darwinism. This was an era when people focused on “the future of the race” and placed it on women to ensure the building of the next generation. Thus the focus on “race suicide” when rich white women preferred to only have two or three babies instead of the 10 or whatever in Italian families. So yes, the arguments to reduce women’s hours were based in out of date ideas infused with racism. But as labor reformers, sometimes you work with the tools you have and in the case of Kelley, whether she believed in the Darwinian stuff (not sure, but I imagine she probably did to some extent, it was so ubiquitous), the point was to move toward breaking the iron law of no limits on the horrors of work in the Gilded Age.

I borrowed from Nancy Woloch, A Class by Herself: Protective Laws from Women Workers, 1890s-1990s to write this post.

This is the 472nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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