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Making Minimum Wage: Elsie Parrish v. The West Coast Hotel Company — A Lecture by Helen Knowles with the Supreme Court Historical Society

Virtual lecture via Zoom Advance registration is required

Helen Knowles is an Associate Professor of History at Oswego State University of New York. She received her Ph.D. from Boston University. She teaches classes in American law and politics, and politics and film. Her research focuses on legal history. She is the author of The Tie Goes to Freedom: Justice Anthony M. Kennedy on Liberty (2009; 2018 – updated paperback); Judging Free Speech: First Amendment Jurisprudence of Supreme Court Justices (co-edited with Steven B. Lichtman); She won the Hughes-Gossett award from the Supreme Court Historical Society for the best student article on Supreme Court history in 2006.

The lecture is inspired by her newly published book, Making Minimum Wage: Elsie Parrish v. The West Coast Hotel Company.


About the Book:

The US Supreme Court’s 1937 decision in West Coast Hotel v. Parrish, upholding the constitutionality of Washington State’s minimum wage law for women, had monumental consequences for all American workers. It also marked a major shift in the Court’s response to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal agenda. In Making Minimum Wage, Helen J. Knowles tells the human story behind this historic case.

West Coast Hotel v. Parrish pitted a Washington State hotel against a chambermaid, Elsie Parrish, who claimed that she was owed the state’s minimum wage. The hotel argued that under the concept of “freedom of contract,” the US Constitution allowed it to pay its female workers whatever low wages they were willing to accept. Knowles unpacks the legal complexities of the case while telling the litigants’ stories. Drawing on archival and private materials, including the unpublished memoir of Elsie’s lawyer, C. B. Conner, Knowles exposes the profound courage and resolve of the former chambermaid. Her book reveals why Elsie—who, in her mid-thirties was already a grandmother—was fired from her job at the Cascadian Hotel in Wenatchee, and why she undertook the outsized risk of suing the hotel for back wages.

Minimum wage laws are “not an academic question or even a legal one,” Elinore Morehouse Herrick, the New York director of the National Labor Relations Board, said in 1936. Rather, they are “a human problem.” A pioneering analysis that illuminates the life stories behind West Coast Hotel v. Parrish as well as the case’s impact on local, state, and national levels, Making Minimum Wage vividly demonstrates the fundamental truth of Morehouse Herrick’s statement.