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Stephen Mihm

The Paternalistic Roots of U.S. Minimum-Wage Laws

The early 20th-century U.S. reformers who first made the minimum wage a woman’s issue.

On Sept. 9, a federal judge ruled that former employees of Rick's Cabaret International Inc. were entitled to the minimum wage because they were bona fide employees, not independent contractors. Rick's operates a chain of nightclubs staffed by an especially hard-working class of employees: topless dancers who were required to work eight-hour shifts in four-inch-high stiletto heels (anything shorter was forbidden by the management).

Although they may not know it, the Rick's dancers owe some of their success to early 20th-century reformers who first made the minimum wage a woman's issue. The story is as strange as the early history of the minimum wage that I related in a column last week, which concluded with the first modern minimum-wage laws in the world in Australia (by way of the Black Death, a liberal pope and some very determined Catholic reformers).