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Mothers in the Work Force: Then and Now

The policy solution was the protective legislation passed in many states to limit the hours of work and the access to dangerous jobs for women. In 1908, these laws were upheld in Muller v. Oregon (1908):

Even though all restriction on political, personal and contractual rights were taken away, and [woman] stood, so far as statutes are concerned upon an absolutely equal plane with [man], it would still be true that she is so constituted that she will rest upon and look to him for protection: that her physical structure and proper discharge of her maternal functions-having in view not merely her own health, but the well-being of the race-justify legislation to protect her from the greed as well as the passion of man. The limitations which this statute places upon her contractual powers, upon her right to agree with her employer as to the time she shall labor, are not imposed solely for her benefit, but also largely for the benefit of all. (P. 422)

It seems odd today that there was no proposal, such as maternity leave, pertaining directly to the maternal functions of women workers. Leave would have given them the right to stay home and rest before and after giving birth. Feminists did not mention such a thing, even though maternity leave laws already had been enacted in several other countries.2 Lack of such demands is evidence of the strong conviction of many social feminists that women would or should quit their jobs altogether upon havng their first child. If mothers had to work because they were poor or because they had been deserted by their husbands, it was a tragedy. Perhaps the feminists assumed that such unfortunate women would have to pick up where they left off when they returned to work. At the bottom of the work ladder, there was no status or seniority to be lost.