Women and Night Work in New York State
In the early twentieth century, state legislatures, such as the New York legislature, began passing labor legislation limiting the working hours of women. New York's legislation prohibited the employment of women after 9 pm and before 6 am, effectively putting an end to night shifts for women. Night shifts, although unconventional, allowed women to earn extra money while still taking care of their homes and families during the day. Women who worked at night in the early twentieth century were employed in a variety of industries--from restaurants and hotels to factories. Legislatures voted for the protective labor laws as a means to guard the physical and moral integrity of white women.
Many labor laws adopted during this time period specifically targeted female workers. While working conditions at the turn of the century were dangerous for all workers, the labor legislation of New York (and many other states) was designed to protect "frail" and "weak" females. The acts were rooted in the idea that women were physically inferior to men as well as traditional notions about the obligation of women to maintain the family home. The paper focuses on the court's response to protective labor legislation for women workers and looks at how several cases galvanized a political response to the situation.
In a 1905 case, Lochner v. New York, the Supreme Court struck down protective labor legislation for (male) bakers as an "unreasonable, unnecessary, and arbitrary interference with the right and liberty of the individual to contract in relation to his labor." In contrast, however, the Court upheld legislation that regulated the work of women. This paper looks at Muller v. Oregon, Hoelderlin v. Kane, and other cases in which courts upheld labor legislation in order to protect women and children from terrible working hours and conditions.
As society was rapidly industrializing, conditions for the male or female worker at the turn of the century were threatening to one's health. While states struggled to establish labor legislation that would strike a balance between freedom of contract and safe labor, women's choices about work were often limited in ways that were not imposed on men.
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