Who Were the Lowell Girls? A Force to Be Reckoned With
In the mid-1800s, textile mills were a big business in New England town, particularly the town of Lowell, Massachusetts. To keep the mills humming along and to keep the profits as high as possible, the mill owners hit on a revolutionary idea: they would employ women. They offer young women from surrounding towns and villages, women who had very few options, the chance to earn their own income and enjoy economic freedom. It was a dream come true for many women, but the dream quickly turned to a nightmare that could only be stopped with a collective show of women supporting other women. So, who were the Lowell Girls? They were a force to be reckoned with.
Recruiting Mill Girls
Mill owners sought young girls and women from New England farms to work in the textile factories. They promised them a weekly paycheck plus room and board in a nice boardinghouse. Most of the women were between the ages of 15 and 35, but some were as young as 12. What the women found when they started work was long, grueling hours, poor working conditions, and tyrant bosses.
Despite the long hours (12 to 14 hours per day) working at a textile mill gave women from rural farms something they never had before… financial freedom. Many of the women saved their hard-earned paycheck and some sent money back home to help their families, but others relished being in control of their own money. The shops and stores in Lowell, Massachusetts, and other mill towns quickly realized the economic power of working women.
The Lowell Girls soon discovered that the mill owners and bosses had complete control over the lives of their female employees. Strict rules and codes of conduct were in place. The male bosses oversaw the moral and social conduct of the female workers and disciplined women for infractions such as late curfews, missing church, and not maintaining a feminine appearance.
The biggest reason that the mill owners employed a female labor force was that they could pay them a lower wage than they would have to pay a male worker. In addition, the mill girls were treated as subordinates, so their complaints, suggestions, and comments could be ignored. The women, who had been raised to be docile and compliant, could be bossed around with little or no resistance.
Lowell Girls on Strike
In 1834, the mill owners in Lowell announced that they were cutting wages to the mill girls. The female workers at one of the mills decided they had had enough of the poor working conditions, long hours, and now, a pay cut. They organized and walked out of work in protest. They went from mill to mill in town to talk to other mill girls and encourage them to join the protest. A large gathering formed, and the women signed a petition stating that they would only return to work when their full pay was restored. The male bosses and mill owners were in disbelief. They never dreamed that their subordinate workforce would protest.
“An Amazonian Display”
One mill owner likened the protest to an “Amazonian display” after the mythical tribe of women warriors, but the strike was short-lived. The power was still in the hands of the mill owners and soon the women were back to work, albeit with smaller paychecks. Another pay cut in 1836 sparked another walk-out. Again, the mill managers seemed to control all the power and resources, so the protest was quickly squashed.
A Different Approach
The Lowell Girls were down, but not out. They realized that, if walkouts and strikes weren’t working, they would have to try a different approach. In the early 1840s, they formed the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association, the first female labor union in the country. Although women did not have the right to vote in the United States at that time, they pressed lawmakers to pass laws capping the workday at textile mills to ten hours per day. Additionally, they published a newsletter that exposed the working conditions in mills and worked to organize chapters in mill towns across New England. Representatives from the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association even testified before a Massachusetts state legislative committee. They even launched a successful political campaign against a candidate who was their opponent and helped ensure his defeat on election day.
The Lowell Female Labor Reform Association did have eventual success. In 1847, New Hampshire passed a state law imposing a ten-hour workday -- the first state to do so. Aside from this, most of the Lowell Girls did not directly benefit from their labor organization, but their daughters and granddaughters did. They demonstrated that working women could stand up against unfair labor practices and that they could have a voice and push for change. By joining together and working toward a common goal, the Lowell Girls showed that working women could be a force to be reckoned with.
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