As readers who’ve followed me from IntLawGrrls blog to this new site well know, I’ve devoted much time in recent years to honoring foremothers – women whose life stories are sources of inspiration today, for women and men alike. Many foremothers were nominated by IntLawGrrls contributors; others came to the fore in our on-this-day or in-passing features; still others, in the research that others and I have done respecting women at Nuremberg and Tokyo post-World War II trials. Some women – for example, the Irish pirate Gráinne Ní Mháille, known to English speakers as Grace O’Malley – have been famous for centuries. Often as not, however, history had obscured these women. It’s been rewarding to bring their stories to light.
It’s a pleasure today to write of Elsie Parrish, a foremother of every working person.
A litigant before the U.S. Supreme Court, hers is a surname that’s found its way into many a law student’s outline. Yet it may not ring a bell, for the student is more likely to recall the landmark 1937 decision – West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish – by the first words in that caption. That’s too bad: as Dr. Helen J. Knowles, a Grinnell College political scientist, demonstrates in the article she’s just published in the Journal of Supreme Court History, Parrish’s personal story, and the emphasis put on it by local media, enrich any account of the case. And many accounts exist, given that Parrish’s case marked a watershed in U.S. history: by a 5-4 vote, the Court approved a New Deal-era minimum-wage law, reversing a long trend and putting a stop to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s plan to “pack” the Court.
Starting it all, the article points out, was Elsie Parrish. In 1935, she was a 30-something, twice-married, once-divorced, mother and grandmother who made her living by cleaning rooms in an upscale hotel in Wenatchee, Washington. (photo credit) When she lost her job and did not receive back wages in line with the state’s minimum-wage-for-women law, she sued. Two years later, she won her case.
Knowles’ article tells of the fight to the Supreme Court and relates interviews Parrish gave with local papers; to one, Parrish said:
‘I am so glad, not only for myself, but for all the women of the state who have been working for just whatever they could get.’
Of interest too is what Parrish, by then a septuagenarian, had to say when America’s 2d feminist wave was at full crest. Interviewer Adela Rogers St. Johns quoted Parrish as follows in her book Some Are Born Great 187 (1972):
‘I was surprised when nobody paid much attention at the time, and none of the women running around and yelling about Lib and such have paid any since.’
In Parrish’s own words, again to Rogers St. John, here’s why she sued her former employers:
‘I had to do it. What they did wasn’t right.’
Acknowledging the ambivalence of some feminists, for the reason that the 1937 victory was cloaked in words of judicial paternalism, Knowles takes issue with Parrish’s claim that “nobody paid attention.” After all, the case remains a landmark. Indeed, the decision in Parrish paved the way for legislation regulating the workplace for all working women – and men, too. Knowles’ article, and other accounts in recent years, begin to restore, to the popular understanding of the case, the story of the woman who brought the suit.