Lowell Mill Girls and the Rhetoric of Women's Labor Unrest
- Even in the beginning years of the Lowell Mills, there was considerable discontent and resistance among workers. The Hamilton Company of Lowell incorporated in 1825. In 1826 and 1827, there were women discharged for "misconduct", "captiousness," "disobedience to orders," "impudence to overseer, "dissatisfaction with wages," and "mutiny." In December 1828, less than two years after the Dover, New Hampshire mill was incorporated, 300-400 women turned out in the first recorded strike of female textile operatives. They were protesting the imposition of "obnoxious regulations" in the factory. Sporadic strikes continued through the 1830s and intensified in the 1840s. As the conditions of factory life deteriorated, more and more women experienced life there as oppressive, and those who stayed in the mills began to fight back. In 1834 and 1836 wage cuts, increasing rents in company housing, and speedups resulted in sporadic, unorganized, and rebellious outbursts. The first activity in 1834 created great excitement, not only in Lowell, but around the country. The Boston Transcript reported the events in Lowell in great detail, using a tone of dignified regret at such goings on:
- "We learn that extraordinary excitement was occasioned at Lowell, last week, by an announcement that the wages paid in some of the departments would be reduced 15 percent on the 1st of March. The reduction principally affected the female operatives, and they held several meetings, or caucuses, at which a young woman presided, who took an active part in persuading her associates to give notice that they should quit the mills, and to induce them to 'make a run' on the Lowell Bank and the Savings Bank, which they did. On Friday morning, the young woman referred to was dismissed, by the Agent...and on leaving the office...waved her calash in the air, as a signal to the others, who were watching from the windows, when they immediately 'struck' and assembled about her, in despite of the overseers.
"The number soon increased to nearly 800. A procession was formed, and they marched about the town, to the amusement of a mob of idlers and boys, and we are sorry to add, not altogether to the credit of Yankee girls....We are told that one of the leaders mounted a stump and made a flaming Mary Wollstonecraft speech on the rights of women and the iniquities of the 'monied aristocracy,' which produced a powerful effect on her auditors, and they determined to 'have their way if they died for it.'"
- The 800 who turned out in 1834 consisted of about a sixth of the work force. These turnouts were characterized by parading around town, making speeches, passing resolutions, holding meetings--all behavior not deemed proper for women as evidenced in the Transcript report. The activity revealed courage and a great sense of wrong on the part of the female workers. Although they were encouraged by the 3rd convention of the National Trades Union, an all-male organization, they were given little concrete support in the way of organizing, sympathetic action, or money. Instead, the women strikers focused on rhetoric, and to do this, they built on the language and intentions of the US Declaration of Independence.
The rhetoric used by the strikers is impressive and important. They linked their action expressly to the tradition of the Revolutionary War, to the efforts of their patriotic ancestors to win independence from England. These women expressed their pride and their sense of independence as they talked of being "daughters of freemen". Here is a poem that concluded their petition to the manufacturers in 1834:
- Let oppression shrug her shoulders,
And a haughty tyrant frown,
And I itt le upstart Ignorance,
In mockery look down.
Yet I value not the feeble threats
Of Tories in disguise,
While the flag of Independence
O'er our noble nation flies.
- By appropriating the revolutionary rhetoric (which the male labor movement did as well), the women workers at Lowell gave their protests legitimacy, for they became, in their own eyes at least, the direct heirs of the revolutionary tradition. Wage cuts were thus not questions of purely economic concern; they were interpreted more broadly, as attempts to enslave women workers and to deprive them of independent status. This is visible again the 1836 actions, in song Iyrics sung by protesting workers:
- Oh! isn't it a pity, such a pretty girl as I
Should be sent to the factory to pine away and die?
Oh! I cannot be a slave, I will not be a slave,
For I'm so fond of liberty,
That I cannot be a slave.
- There was a difference in the two actions, of 1834 and 1836. The first took place against a slump in textile sales. In 1836, sales were booming and there was a shortage of operators. The possibility of successful labor action was greater with prosperity, as the workers did not need to fear a blacklist quite so much. And indeed, more workers turned out in 1836--some 1500 to 2000, a fourth of the operators. The mills ran below capacity, not for just a few days as in 1834, but for several months. In addition, to coordinate strike activities, the women operators formed the Factory Girl's Association, with a membership of 2500. Women won a recinding of the increased price of room and board for operatives, the immediate cause of the strike.
The depression of 1837, one of the nation's most severe, ended the first phase of labor struggle in Lowell.
The turn-outs at Lowell were repeated elsewhere in New England mill towns. They demonstrate a new consciousness among working women, the first step of which had come when they left home to enter the urban, industrial world of the factory towns. In this new setting women refashioned traditional values--most notably their view of themselves as "daughters of freemen"--and used them to justify new and untraditional forms of protest. The turnouts of the 1830s were tentative first efforts at labor protest, but would yeild in the 1840s a more coordinated and organized form of struggle, called the Ten Hour Movement.
Prepared by Professor Catherine Lavender for History 286 (American Women's History), The Department of History, The College of Staten Island of The City University of New York. Send email to email@example.com
Fall Semester 1997. Last modified: Wednesday 22 October 1997