"Law & Laundry: White Laundresses, Chinese Laundrymen, and the Origins of Muller v. Oregon"

Michigan Law Authors
Publish Date
Studies in Law, Politics and Society
Publication Type
Journal Article

This chapter uses the historian’s method of micro-history to rethink the significance of the Supreme Court decision Muller v. Oregon (1908). Muller is typically considered a labor law decision permitting the regulation of women’s work hours. However, this chapter argues that through particular attention to the specific context in which the labor dispute took place – the laundry industry in Portland, Oregon – the Muller decision and underlying conflict should be understood as not only about sex-based labor rights but also about how the labor of laundry specifically involved race-based discrimination. This chapter investigates the most important conflicts behind the Muller decision, namely the entangled histories of white laundresses’ labor and labor activism in Portland, as well as the labor of their competitors – Chinese laundrymen. In so doing, this chapter offers an intersectional reading of Muller that incorporates regulations on Chinese laundries and places the decision in conversation with a long line of anti-Chinese laundry legislation on the West Coast, including that at issue in Yick Wo v. Hopkins (1886).

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