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The Lowell Mill Girls

I find textile and yarn history to be fascinating, particularly since it is so deeply intertwined with women's history, which is why I thought I would tell you about the Lowell Mill Girls this week.

In the nineteenth century, New England textile mills recruited young daughters of farmers as workers. These women were generally between the ages of 15 and 35, and had few economic opportunities. That is, the best they could hope for was to marry a farmer who had at least a small plot of land of his own, but, as you can imagine, not many unmarried, landed farmers were available.

The mills, however, afforded young women with a small chance to make some money that they might be able to send back to their families while placing them cities, like Lowell, Massachusetts.

Mill life was not a dream, though. Ruled by the iron fist of wealthy men who enforced strict rules of conduct, the mill girls often worked for 12 - 14 hours a day during the week and half a day on Saturday. The girls lived in boardinghouses where their "keeper" oversaw approximately eight units with 20 - 40 women living in each unit. Evidence suggests that there were four people assigned to a room for sleeping, and the girls often slept two to a bed. Furthermore, mill conditions were often unhealthy and difficult.

Although the mills in Lowell did tend to pay higher wages than other mills, the conditions were not much better for the workers. What makes the Lowell Mill Girls stand out, though, is that they fought back at a time when few women were able to do so. They went on strike several times--twice in the 1830s and again in the 1840s to protest wage cuts and to push for a ten-hour work day. According to the AFL-CIO, while they inspired one another, the mill managers were furious, one claiming, "An amizonian [SIC] display [...] A spirit of evil omen has prevailed."

While their strikes were unsuccessful, the Lowell Mill Girls were undeterred. In 1840, they formed the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association, circulated petitions, and pushed for political action--all despite the fact that women still did not yet have the right to vote.

They even began publishing two newspapers--The Voice and the Lowell Offerings--to expose the unhealthy and problematic conditions at the mills.

While their only true success was in shortening the work day to 10 hours, as the AFL-CIO notes, the Lowell Mill Girls did something that had previously been unheard of in the United States and they paved the way for workers rights. Furthermore, they paved the way for female political action. The AFL-CIO quotes one of the women as writing, "They have at last learnt the lesson which a bitter experience teachers, not to those who style themselves their 'natural protectors' are they to look for the needful help, but to the strong and resolute of their own sex."

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