It started with the girls.
The history of the American worker is some of the most compelling history I know. The history of the American woman is definitely the most compelling history I know. When you combine the history of the American woman at work, the history is off-the-charts great.
In the early ages of the United States, as the national economy was just starting to develop, the factory was creating great disruption in the lives of Americans of all regions, trades and genders.
The new factory system would create disruptions in every country where it was established, causing backlashes against the inhumanity that the factory imposed on humans who labored within.
The early American factories employed young girls as workers. The choice of young girls is simple enough to understand. At the time, young girls were not valued by their fathers to the same extent as their sons, and the development of a young girl by education was considered a waste of money.
The Property of Men.
This was a time when women were considered the property of men, and the role of a young girl was to grow up, get married, and leave the family forever.
This meant that young girls were expensive burdens upon the family finances. Sad as it is to admit, this was the thinking at the time. We must remember, too, that in many parts of the world, young girls are still considered drains upon their families for these same reasons.
One of the great things about the United States is that it has wrestled with the equality of women, sometime with more success than other times. In comparison to other nations, the United States stands far ahead in the protection of rights for women.
This is not to say that more cannot or should not be done.
And Yet She Persisted…
That is why it was warming to hear the recent speeches by women at the Golden Globes.
Today we will examine the characteristics of the first women factory workers, and their bold and fearless advocacy.
This history is important to remember, as the history of women is still marginalized in classrooms around the nation.
Furthermore, it is still seen as acceptable to tell women to be quiet in public,
and to silence women who call for justice against the powerful and the privileged.
The Lowell Offering
The website History Is A Weapon describes the context of these first brave and powerful girls.
When Boston capitalists, making use of the new canal system, began building textile mills in Lowell, Massachusetts, in the early nineteenth century, they recruited young women from rural New England as their labor force.
They assumed these “girls” would be docile and easily managed. Instead, the young women in the Lowell mills formed reading circles, organized to demand their rights as laborers and as women, and agitated for better workplace conditions.
They printed leaflets and published their own newspaper, the ‘Lowell Offering.’
Here Harriet Hanson Robinson, who started work in the mills when she was only ten, recounts a “turn out,” or strike, of the Lowell women, and describes the conditions of women factory workers in the 1830s.
—Introduction from Zinn and Arnove’s Voices of a People’s History of the United States—Introduction from Zinn and Arnove’s Voices of a People’s History of the United States
Harriet Hansen Robinson may be the youngest feminist I have ever encountered in American history. She must have been in her early teens at the time of this story. She displayed rare bravery for a girl in a time when girls were considered little if at all by men.
“Characteristics of the Early Factory Girls” (1898) By Harriet Hansen Robinson
At the time the Lowell cotton-mills were started, the factory girl was the lowest among women. In England, and in France particularly, great injustice had been done to her real character; she was represented as subjected to influences that could not fail to destroy her purity and self-respect. In the eyes of her overseer she was but a brute, slave, to be beaten, pinched, and pushed about.http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/robinsonfactgirls.html
Girls could fairly be considered slave labor at this time in America. As a rule, girls and women are not referred to as slaves, despite the fact that they had almost a little power and a few rights as a member of the slave class.
In this way we can see how early industrialized capitalism sought labor from the weakest, least powerful members of society, in order to maximize profits.
It was to overcome this prejudice that such high wages had been offered to women that they might be induced to become mill-girls, in spice of the opprobrium that still clung to this “degrading occupation.” At first only a few came; for, though tempted by the high wages to be regularly paid in “cash,” there were many who still preferred to go on working at some more genteel employment at seventy-five cents a week and their board.http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/robinsonfactgirls.html
The Pride of Work
Robinson explains that the wages were what led to the employment of young girls. Their families saw a chance to profit from the labor of a person who was otherwise considered a drain upon the finances, regardless of the love and affection she may have represented to the family.
The chance to earn wages in cash meant that the girls were allowed to take up physical labor, a role that was looked down upon for women at the time. Women were so sheltered and contained that the idea of a “working girl” was see as the hallmark of a low class family. high wages in the mills was one way to overcome the scandal of work outside the home.
But in a short time the prejudice against the factory labor wore away, and the Lowell mills became filled with blooming and energetic New England women. They were naturally intelligent, had mother-wit, and fell easily into the ways of their new life.
They soon began to associate with those who formed the community in which they had come to live, and were invited to their houses. They went to the same church, and sometimes married into some of the best families.
Or if they returned to their secluded homes again, instead of being looked down upon as “factory girls” by the squire’s or lawyer’s family, they were more often welcomed as coming from the metropolis, bringing new fashions, new books, and new ideas with them.http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/robinsonfactgirls.html
Here we see the elevating nature of labor. When one earns and provides, it carries a certain respect with it. Pride in contributing was an additional fringe benefit that the girls received. This pride of contribution through labor had an egalitarizing effect, which would prove to be contagious. As more girls understood how they could have greater worth in society, the push to participate in the work economy became a siren call.
Women with past histories came, to hide their griefs and their identity, and to earn an honest living in the “sweat of their brow.” Single young men came, full of hope and life, to get money for an education, or to lift the mortgage from the home-farm. Troops of young girls came by stages and baggage-wagons, men often being employed to go to other States and to Canada, to collect them at so much a head, and deliver them to the factories….http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/robinsonfactgirls.html
Notice here how the “women with past histories” are discussed. This is a reference to former prostitutes, who now were doing work considered more acceptable by society. Robinson does not say the word, “prostitute”, by insinuates it by menting the sweat of their brow in quotations. It is both clever and interesting to see how society viewed sex workers then, and how women might be “redeemed” by becoming factory girls.
Read About “The Problem that Has No Name”, a story of women in America in the 1950’s.
The Birth of the American Labor Movement
The effect of these redemptions and the pride all felt through contribution would lead these young women to speak up for themselves in a manner never before thought possible. In this we can see the birth of a great American tradition and force. The era of the American labor movement is about to dawn in the Lowell Mills.
One of the first strikes of the cotton-factory operatives that ever took place in this country was that in Lowell, in October, 1836. When it was announced that wages were to be cut down, great indignation was felt, and it was decided to strike, en masse. This was done. The mills were shut down, and the girls went in procession from their several corporations to the “grove” on Chapel Hill, and listened to “incendiary” speeches from early labor reformers.http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/robinsonfactgirls.html
A Notable First In History
One of the girls stood on a pump, and gave vent to the feelings of her companions in a neat speech, declaring that it was their duty to resist all attempts at cutting down the wages. This was the first time a woman had spoken in public in Lowell, and the event caused surprise and consternation among her audience.http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/robinsonfactgirls.html
Robinson notes, with some satisfaction, that the strike was also the first time a woman had spoken in public in Lowell. Consider that for a moment. Women had existed in Lowell since the founding of the city in the 1820’s. So by 1898, no woman had yet to speak in public in this city. It took a workers strike by girls to establish the voice of women in society. That, no doubt, is a significant and notable moment in history.
Cutting down the wages was not their only grievance, nor the only cause of this strike. Hitherto the corporations had paid twenty-five cents a week towards the board of each operative, and now it was their purpose to have the girls pay the sum; and this, in addition to the cut in wages, would make a difference of at least one dollar a week. It was estimated that as many as twelve or fifteen hundred girls turned out, and walked in procession through the streets….http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/robinsonfactgirls.html
Read the Story of
The Trial of Susan B. Anthony: “Resistance To Tyranny Is Obedience To God.”
My own recollection of this first strike (or “turn out” as it was called) is very vivid. I worked in a lower room, where I had heard the proposed strike fully, if not vehemently, discussed; I had been an ardent listener to what was said against this attempt at “oppression” on the part of the corporation, and naturally I took sides with the strikers. When the day came on which the girls were to turn out, those in the upper rooms started first, and so many of them left that our mill was at once shut down.
Then, when the girls in my room stood irresolute, uncertain what to do, asking each other, “Would you?” or “Shall we turn out?” and not one of them having the courage to lead off, I, who began to think they would not go out, after all their talk, became impatient, and started on ahead, saying, with childish bravado, “I don’t care what you do, I am going to turn out, whether any one else does or not;” and I marched out, and was followed by the others.http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/robinsonfactgirls.html
As I looked back at the long line that followed me, I was more proud than I have ever been at any success I may have achieved.http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/robinsonfactgirls.html
Women Lead The Way
This moment of defiance is something we can all be proud to see and know. It is a moment in history with great significance. It is significant because “turning out” was the start of American workers demanding rights and collective benefits for the first time. It is the start of significant traditions in American History.
Let me just name a few of the changes in the American working experience that resulted from this new pride and self respect that flowed from this first strike:
- The weekend.
- The eight hour work day
- Overtime pay
- Unemployment Insurance
- Healthcare benefits
- Collective Bargaining
- Sexual Harassment Law
Please feel free to consider how women, and girls, were the first to stand up for dignity in the workplace. Sometimes from the smallest and weakest we see the start of the greatest and most powerful lessons.
Please feel invited to share, in the comments section, any benefits you might wish to add to the list of benefits that have grown out of this first bold assertion from American working girls.