Once upon a time the Lowell mill women were famous, the pride of the manufacturers and one of the wonders of the civilized world. Charles Dickens went to see them on his first American tour in 1842 and marveled at them. They had, he reported, a piano in (almost) every boarding house, a lending library, a regular schedule of visiting lecturers from, among other institutions, Harvard College, and a literary magazine financed by the Corporations but written entirely by female operatives.

Dickens was particularly struck by the modesty, cleanliness, and literacy of the Lowell women because he was familiar with England's wretched manufacturing cities like Manchester and Birmingham. The English mill workers were an oppressed, diseased, miserable class living in the festering slums of England's great manufacturing centers; the New England capitalists wanted no such blight on the American landscape--at least, not in the beginning. Later, when the famine Irish flooded in and large-scale manufacturing had become an accepted fact in American life, the native Yankee women fled the mills because of repeated wage cuts and worsening working conditions. It was no longer a source of pride to be female operative "on the Corporation." As conditions in American factories began to equal those in England, labor agitation increased. So, after World War I, the manufacturers simply picked up and moved South, even as they have moved beyond American borders today, in search of a cheap, docile work force.

Corporation propaganda notwithstanding, Lowell was never the workers' paradise that Charles Dickens believed it to be. Many of the women were recruited for the factories by agents driving wagons nicknamed "slavers" that roamed the upcountry farms in search of new hands. Factory work in Lowell was not the equivalent of Southern slavery, of course, but it was near enough in many operatives' minds.

A few of the many thousands of Lowell women made abortive attempts to oppose the frequent wage cuts and "speedups"; all failed. In the 1830's, after wages were cut, some particularly bold women tried to organize a "turnout." They were fired and blacklisted, never to work in a cotton factory again. In the 1840's, the "Ten-Hour" movement tried repeatedly to force the manufacturers to shorten the working day from 12 or 14 hours to 10; it failed too.

In fact, the majority of the Lowell mill women disapproved of the labor agitators. An informal "Moral Police" kept a close eye on the women, reporting malcontents and so-called troublemakers to boarding house matrons and (male) mill managers. Any woman who agitated for shorter hours, or for higher wages than the $2.00 or $3.00 per week that female operatives earned, would be shunned, ostracized by her sister operatives because her behavior would tarnish them all. And if it became known that women who worked in the factories were "disorderly" women, no "decent" woman would be able to avail herself of the much-needed pittance that the factories offered, because no "disorderly" woman could hope for marriage--at the time, the only really suitable option for a woman.

By the time of the Civil War, when the Northern factories closed because of the dearth of Southern raw cotton, the female Yankee spinners and weavers, the famous Lowell mill women, were gone for good. They called their labor "freedom," but what they meant by freedom was the newfound--and short-lived--chance to earn a dollar or two or three every week. It wasn't much, but for those hardworking Yankee females, it was a start on the long road to independence.

Reference
Sarah Bagley. Factory Tracts
John Coolidge. Mill and Mansion
Charles Dickens. American Notes for General Circulation
Benita Eisler. The Lowell Offering: Writing by New England Mill Women
Hannah Josephson. The Golden Threads
Lucy Larcom. A New England Girlhood
Harriet Hanson Robinson. Early Factory Labor in New England
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