When Emma Gotcher showed up to her shift at Portland’s Grand Laundry at what is now 320 N 17th Ave on Labor Day in 1906, it was a mundane beginning to a chain of events that would put her name in national headlines. Only about 16 years old at the time, she was about to be embroiled in a legal fight that would eventually reach the Supreme Court and would change the face of labor and women’s rights in the United States.
Emma Gotcher is buried with her husband, Edward, in Lone Fir Cemetery, section 34, lot 19, grave 1S.
Read newspaper clippings that helped tell Emma's story.
Please note, the language used to describe people in many of these sources is racist, misogynistic, classist and shows other forms of discrimination. Very often, the terms used and the way people were talked about was considered offensive at the time.
Yale Union Laundry
Breadwinning, equity and solidarity: Labor feminism in Oregon 1945-1970
Oregon Historical Society
In order to understand how a single day at work had such profound consequences for Emma and the rest of the nation, it might help to understand a little more about Oregon law at the time. In 1902, Oregon law changed to restrict the work shift of women to 10 hours (men had no equivalent protection). Much of the reasoning behind this gendered protection was rooted in sexist assumptions about women’s physical and emotional capacity to labor. However flawed the reasoning, the measure was one of the few progressive legal protections for workers in an otherwise laissez-faire Oregon economic policy of that day. Because of this, it had support from many early champions of workers’ rights. Many working women saw the measures as a protection from being exploited in the workplace.
Little is known about Emma in the early years of her life. She was born in Wisconsin on June 15, 1890 and married young to Edward Elmer Gotcher, a leader in the Shirtwaist and Laundryworkers’ Union, of which she soon became a member. On that day in 1906, Grand Laundry overseer Joe Haselbock compelled Emma to stay past the legal 10-hour limit on her shift. Whether he did this knowing the full extent of the law is unclear, but Emma wasted no time in bringing this to a local court, which found Grand Laundry’s owner, Curt Muller, guilty of violating state labor laws. He was fined $10, about $300 today.
Furious at what he perceived to be government overreach into his private business practices, Muller secured financial backing from the local Laundryowners Association and appealed the case to the Oregon Supreme Court and eventually the U.S. Supreme Court. His attorney, corporate lawyer William Fenton, was a noted opponent of government intervention in business. While the real vested interest of Muller, Fenton and the Laundryowners Association was clearly in managing their employees as they saw fit without state intervention, they cleverly framed their argument as an appeal to women’s right to equal treatment under the law.
The law’s prospects in front of the Supreme Court at this time were somewhat grim. The Lochner v. New York case had recently struck down a similar state law limiting the work hours of bakery employees. However, the case caught the attention of civil rights and suffrage activist Florence Kelley, who was the head of the National Consumers’ League at that time. The NCL was a citizen’s advocacy group whose goal was to advance protections for workers across the country, and eventually push for an eight-hour workday. By using the Muller case to advance protection for women first, Kelley hoped to use it as an “entering wedge” to advance broader reforms down the line, a view that won her the support of the National Women's Trade Union League.
Seeing that the success or failure of their movement might hinge on the success of this case, the NCL hired attorney Louis Brandeis – later an associate justice of the Supreme Court – to write a brief in defense of the State of Oregon. The Brandeis Brief, as it is now known, distinguished the case from Lochner by insinuating that women had less physical and emotional capability for day labor. This was already a popular view, and he supported it with largely anecdotal evidence. “Ironically,” notes legal scholar David E. Bernstein, “just about the only relevant authority not cited in the brief were women workers themselves, whose views were apparently considered superfluous.” The defense held that protections for women were therefore necessary in order to conserve their ability to bear children.
Muller’s brief, on the other hand, appealed to the right of men and women to receive equal treatment under the law. He argued that state restriction of a woman’s right to make labor contracts was fundamentally an issue of gender equality. His hope was that the court would rule against state restriction of labor as it had in Lochner. However, he had underestimated the court’s willingness to hear out an argument built on equal rights at a time when this was still a controversial notion. At the time, only six states had even granted women suffrage (Oregon wouldn’t for three more years).
The Supreme Court’s final verdict upheld the law restricting women’s working hours. Despite the stereotypes the defense conjured to make its case, progressive women and labor leaders across the nation celebrated the victory. Robin Miller Jacoby’s essay Introduction: The Women’s Trade League describes the case as “a major impetus for the WTUL’s legislative program” and notes that their most consistent focus after that case for decades “was with limiting the hours of women’s work.” Precedent-setting not only legally but as a benchmark for women’s advocacy, it cemented Gotcher as a prominent figure in the early years of the fight for equal treatment in the workplace.
Emma, however, does not seem to have been one for the limelight. After her initial involvement in the case against Muller, she lived a relatively uneventful life until her tragic death in a car crash with her husband, Edward, at the age of 72. They were buried together in Section 34, Lot 19, Grave 1S of Lone Fir Cemetery. They were survived by their two daughters, Gloria M. Gotcher and Shirley M. Gotcher Bailey.