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The Case Of The Chambermaid And The Nine Old Men
When Elsie Parrish was fired, her fight for justice led to dramatic changes in the nation’s highest court.
December 1986 | Volume 38, Issue 1
Yet despite all the ridicule directed at the Court, Hughes read the opinion in Elsie Parrish’s case with an unmistakable note of exultation in his voice. For by being able to show that he had won Roberts to his side in Parrish , he had gone a long way toward defeating the Court-packing scheme. Once Roosevelt had a 5-4 majority for social legislation, there no longer appeared to be an urgent need for a drastic remedy. “Why,” it was asked, “shoot the bridegroom after a shotgun wedding?” Not for nearly four months would FDR’s proposal be finally, rejected, and it would retain substantial backing almost to the very end, but never was it as formidable a proposition as it had been on the eve of Elsie Parrish’s case. Within days after the decision was handed down, Washington insiders were regaling one another with a saucy sentence that encapsulated the new legislative situation: “A switch in time saved nine.”
The Court’s shift in Parrish proved to be the first of many. On the very day that Parrish was decided, “White Monday,” the Court also upheld a revised farm mortgage law (the original one had been struck down on “Black Monday,” in 1935) as well as other reform statutes. Two weeks later, once more by 5-4 with Roberts in the majority, it validated the Wagner Act (the National Labor Relations Act) and in the following month it turned aside challenges to the Social Security Act. Indeed, never again did the Supreme Court strike down a New Deal law, and from 1937 to the present it has not overturned a single piece of significant national or state legislation establishing minimal labor standards. Many commentators even believe that the Court has forever abandoned its power of judicial review in this field. Little wonder then that analysts speak of the “Constitutional Revolution of 1937.”
Battle-scarred veterans of the minimum wage movement found themselves in a universe remade. The seventeen states with minimum wage statutes on their books now took steps to enforce them, and New York made plans to enact new legislation to replace the law struck down in Tipaldo . Even more consequential were the implications of Parrish for the national government. Late in 1936 President Roosevelt had told newspapermen of an experience on the streets of New Bedford when his campaign car was mobbed by enthusiastic well-wishers, twenty thousand of them crowded into a space intended to hold a thousand:
“There was a girl six or seven feet away who was trying to pass an envelope to me and she was just too far away to reach. One of the policemen threw her back into the crowd and I said to my driver ‘Get the note from that girl.’ He got it and handed it to me and the note said this … ‘Dear Mr. President: I wish you could do something to help us girls. You are the only recourse we have got left. We have been working in a sewing factory … and up to a few months ago we were getting our minimum pay of $11 a week. … Today the 200 of us girls have been cut down to $4 and $5 and $6 a week. You are the only man that can do anything about it. Please send somebody from Washington up here to restore our minimum wages because we cannot live on $4 or $5 or $6 a week.’
“That is something that so many of us found in the Campaign, that these people think that I have the power to restore things like minimum wages and maximum hours and the elimination of child labor. … And, of course, 1 haven’t any power to do it.”
Now, thanks to the constitutional revolution that the Wenatchee chambermaid had detonated, Congress was able to give him that power, and when the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 that set minimum wages and maximum hours for both men and women was challenged in the courts, a reconstituted Supreme Court found no difficulty in validating it.
Long before then Elsie Parrish had faded into the anonymity from which she had risen, and when more than thirtyfive years later Adela Rogers St. Johns, a reporter who had won renown as the “sob sister” of the Hearst press, tracked her down in Anaheim, California, Mrs. Parrish expressed surprise that anyone would pay attention to her. Surrounded by grandchildren, looking much younger than her years, “dressed in something pink and fresh-washed and ironed,” she said that she had gotten little notice at the time and “none of the women running around yelling about Lib and such have paid any since.” But she was quietly confident that she had accomplished something of historic significance—less for herself than for all the thousands of women scrubbing floors in hotels, toiling at laundry vats, and tending machines in factories who needed to know that, however belatedly, they could summon the law to their side.