October 13, 1877 – Birth of Josephine Clara Goldmark, Labor Law Reformer

Josephine Clara Goldmark, born on this date in Brooklyn in 1877, was a vehement advocate of labor law reform who had outsized influence thanks to the fact that she was the sister-in-law of Louis Brandeis.

Josephine Goldmark

Goldmark was the youngest of ten children born to parents who had strong liberal beliefs. After her father’s death in 1881, the Jewish Women’s Archive recounts that two of her brothers-in-law became important father figures: Felix Adler, founder of the Society for Ethical Culture, who married her eldest sister, Helen, in 1880; and Louis D. Brandeis, who married her sister Alice in 1891. Brandeis, a Boston lawyer who in 1916 became the first Jewish justice of the United States Supreme Court, was a cousin of the Goldmark family; he and Josephine were descended from the same great-grandfather. Both the Brandeis and Goldmark families reportedly had a rationalist and assimilationist bent, but retained a strong Jewish identity.

Goldmark graduated from Bryn Mawr College in 1898 and then taught for a while at Barnard College. One of her sisters introduced her to Florence Kelley, a powerful New York City reformer, and Goldmark left Barnard to work with Kelley at the National Consumers League (NCL). She eventually became chairman of the committee on labor laws. She investigated labor conditions extensively and wrote prolifically about her findings. It was the team of Kelley and Goldmark who approached Louis Brandeis to submit a brief on behalf of Oregon. As Mike Wallace notes in Greater Gotham:

Of the voluminous document, only two pages dealt with legal issues. The rest, compiled by researchers working under Goldmark’s supervision, provided an annotated compendium of social science and medical studies and reports on European practices all aimed at demonstrating the ‘special susceptibility to fatigue and disease which distinguished the female sex, qua female.'”

This document became known as the famous “Brandeis Brief” that her brother-in-law presented to the Supreme Court in Muller v. Oregon (208 U.S. 412, 1908), detailing the effects of industrial work, low wages, and long hours on workers, particularly women and children. The brief was instrumental in getting the Supreme Court to declare that state maximum-hours laws were constitutional, and the technique used – the gathering and presentation of socially relevant facts—became the main instrument for shaping American law according to social need rather than judicial precedent.

In 1911, Goldmark was part of the investigating committee into the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. The following year, the Russell Sage Foundation published her book Fatigue and Efficiency, a study of the effects of long hours on workers’ health and job performance. She continued to write and publish studies on working conditions for women and children until her death in December 1950 from a heart ailment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: