ELSIE PARRISH had reached her limit. No stranger to perseverance, she was a toddler when her father died in a gruesome farm accident. She was married at 15 and bore seven children.
As a chambermaid, she scrubbed toilets and changed sheets for a living. And in the spring of 1935, she just wanted what she was owed for working at Wenatchee’s splendid Cascadian Hotel.
With the countryside pink in the fragrant blush of its signature apple orchards, Parrish walked to the handsome Doneen Building, a block from the Cascadian, and the law office of Charles Burnham Conner. Her question was simple: Why shouldn’t the hotel owners pay her what state law required?
Washington was the fourth state in the union to adopt a minimum wage law for women. And Parrish knew she wasn’t paid the prescribed minimum of $14.50 for a 48-hour week.
She had cashed her deficient paychecks in the depths of the Great Depression, when Wenatchee’s unemployment rate stood at a stubborn 24 percent. “I took what they gave me because I needed this work so badly,” she said. Still, it gnawed at her that the hotel, over the course of a year, had shorted her $216.
Conner, a part-time justice of the peace known as “C.B.,” agreed to take her case, even though she couldn’t afford to pay him. He soon would learn the hoteliers didn’t dispute Parrish’s job performance. Or her math. And they were versed in state law. They just believed it was unconstitutional.
SHE WAS BORN Elsie Delilah Murray in 1899 in Penalosa, Kansas, in the south-central part of the state, about 60 windswept miles west of Wichita. Her family had come to America from Ireland in the early 1700s. They eventually made their way west to Illinois and then on to the sparsely populated Great Plains, where bison and Indians roamed just several decades before.
When Elsie was 15 months old, her father, Ed Murray, was killed in what The Wichita Eagle called “one of the more deplorable and horrible accidents which ever has occurred in Reno County.” Murray was walking on top of a thresher that separated grain from stalk when he slipped and stepped into its rotating cylinder and blades. He died a few hours later.
Elsie’s oldest brother drowned the next year. Her mother was left with a 160-acre farm and six children under 14 to care for. Emma Murray soldiered on as a single mother until she remarried in 1907.
Family members, including Elsie, later moved west to homestead in Montana. So did the Lee family, whom the Murrays knew, from a neighboring Kansas township. Both the Murrays and Lees ended up living near Coffee Creek, Montana. Elsie married Roy Lee, nine years her senior. She gave birth to their first child in March 1915, five days shy of her 16th birthday.
In 1927, an 8-year old son died.
With the Depression gripping the country, the couple and their six remaining children trekked to Neppel, Washington. (Neppel became Moses Lake in 1938, with a population just more than 300.) It’s not clear how the Lees survived in Neppel, but their marriage did not. Elsie divorced Roy, finally unable to tolerate his alcoholism, according to Helen Knowles, a professor in New York writing a book about Parrish.
By 1933, she had moved about 70 miles west to Wenatchee, a crossroads of river and rail transportation ambitious enough to proclaim itself “Apple Capital of the World.” A single mother, she started working at the Cascadian for 22½ cents an hour. The next year, she wed Ernest Parrish, who listed “orchard work” as his occupation on their marriage license.
She worked a full shift, court records show, on the day of her wedding.
BY THE TIME Parrish demanded to be paid fairly, the U.S. Supreme Court had famously ruled several times against state regulation of work conditions. The white male justices, seemingly frozen in a 19th-century view of laissez-faire economics, had decreed in 1923 that a minimum wage violated a woman’s right to make her own contract with an employer. That was a constitutional liberty, they opined, no matter how callous an employer might be.
But on March 29, 1937, after the U.S. Supreme Court heard her complaint and all the lawyers were done deliberating, to the nation’s surprise, the chambermaid’s case would take a stunning turn. It seemed to open the court’s eyes to the hardships of the Depression, and Parrish played a pivotal role in a profound change in the justices’ thinking.
Some two years after Parrish last swept rugs in the Cascadian, the Wenatchee chambermaid was to receive her $216.19 in back pay.
The victory won by this “ordinary Washington citizen benefited millions of other low-income Americans,” says Gerry L. Alexander, former chief justice of the Washington Supreme Court.
“Not only did it give the green light to the states to pass minimum-wage laws, which are ubiquitous today,” Alexander says. “But it quickly opened the floodgates to other New Deal legislation, such as the Social Security Act, which has had a huge effect on just about everyone in our nation.”
Surprisingly, history’s gaze was never really trained on Parrish. Her legacy is so overlooked and untold that many of her descendants had no idea she was at the center of a landmark lawsuit. Among the clueless was Barbara Roberts, her grandniece and Oregon’s first woman governor. “It’s something I had never heard anything about,” Roberts says.
Shortly after her Supreme Court victory, Parrish disappeared from the public eye. Later accounts had her working in Omak, where her husband labored at a saw mill; then they moved to Snohomish County, and on to Southern California. Although her case later “launched a thousand law review articles,” she was never the story. She was not prominent in feminist or labor-history literature — or even in family lore.
Debbie Stewart, a great-granddaughter, says Parrish was a big part of her upbringing in Southern California and bought her a middle-school graduation dress. Stewart recalls Parrish as sweet but stern, fond of crocheting and gardening, with a “you-kids-got-it-easy” toughness. One afternoon in April 1980, after going to see her newly born great-great-grandson, Parrish came home, took a nap and died in her sleep, Stewart says.
Stewart says her father told her about the legendary lawsuit, but she never talked about it with Parrish.