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Sunday, August 31, 2014

Suffragette City

The Mills Girls sculpture by Mico Kaufman is a memorial to the women who toiled long hours (13-14 every day!), who organized, who fought for change in the Lowell textile mills of the 1800s. The big bosses capitalized on the the young, poor, not politically connected, single women of the day.

I’ve always wondered — what would I have done, who would I have been in 1800s America? Would I have been a Yankee Jane Eyre, minding and attempting to educate a passel of rich people’s bairn?
In 1850 there were an estimated 21,000 governesses in England. Despite the negatives, there were more applicants than there were positions because the only alternatives were marriage, domestic service, prostitution or the poor-house
An advertisement from an 1845 edition of The Times shows that an offer of shelter was frequently the extent of compensation:
Wanted, a Governess, on Handsome Terms.
Governess -- a comfortable home, but without salary, is offered to any lady wishing for a situation as governess in a gentleman's family residing in the country, to instruct two little girls in music, drawing, and English; a thorough knowledge of the French language is required.
So the governess bit seems like it would’ve been a non-starter for me. I imagine, the mills is where I'd have been. Joy. Somehow I just can't see myself docilely putting up with 12-14 hour workdays in hot, crowded, rooms with dust clogged air and the deafening roar of the machines.

From the History Matters site:
A group of Boston capitalists built a major textile manufacturing center in Lowell, Massachusetts, in the second quarter of the 19th century. The first factories recruited women from rural New England as their labor force. These young women, far from home, lived in rows of boardinghouses adjacent to the growing number of mills. The industrial production of textiles was highly profitable,and the number of factories in Lowell and other mill towns increased. More mills led to overproduction, which led to a drop in prices and profits. Mill owners reduced wages and speeded up the pace of work. The young female operatives organized to protest these wage cuts in 1834 and 1836. Harriet Hanson Robinson was one of those factory operatives; she began work in Lowell at the age of ten, later becoming an author and advocate of women’s suffrage. In 1898 she published Loom and Spindle, a memoir of her Lowell experiences, where she recounted the strike of 1836.
You can actually read all of Loom and Spindle here.

In February of 1834 800 workers went on strike.
This first strike in Lowell is important not because it failed or succeeded, but simply because it took place. In an era in which women had to overcome opposition simply to work in the mills, it is remarkable that they would further overstep the accepted middle-class bounds of female propriety by participating in a public protest.
UNION! Women didn’t even have the right to vote yet but:
In 1834, when their bosses decided to cut their wages, the mill girls had enough: They organized and fought back. The mill girls "turned out"—in other words, went on strike—to protest.
The following year brought the Ten Hour Movement.
The women's Ten Hour Movement, like the earlier turn-outs, was based in part on the participants' sense of their own worth and dignity as daughters of freemen. At the same time, however, it also indicated the growth of a new consciousness. It reflected a mounting feeling of community among women operatives and a realization that their interests and those of their employers were not identical, that they had to rely on themselves and not on corporate benevolence to achieve a reduction in the hours of labor. One women, in an open letter to a state legislator, expressed this rejection of middle-class paternalism: "Bad as is the condition of so many women, it would be much worse if they had nothing but your boasted protection to rely upon; but they have at last learnt the lesson which a bitter experience teaches, that 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." Such an attitude, underlying the self-organizing of women in the 10-hour petition campaigns, was clearly the product of the industrial experience in Lowell.*

Does this sound familiar? The House of Representative’s committee which was tasked with reviewing the women’s concerns, the petition and doing something about it responded thusly:
A law restricting the workday, the committee wrote, would negatively affect the competitiveness of the mills. It would also affect “the question of wages,” which the committee held should be set by the market, as negotiated between labor and capital. In Lowell, the committee said, “labor is on an equality with capital, and indeed controls it…Labor is intelligent enough to make its own bargains, and look out for its own interests without any interference from us.
The committee concluded by expressing confidence that any abuses in the mills would remedy themselves, through “the progressive improvement in art and science, in a higher appreciation of man's destiny.”

'the fuck?

Were abuses corrected? The changes, the improvement were finally made but not until 29 years had passed (!) but first the women who’d campaigned and fought had been replaced by immigrant labor.
By the 1920s, the New England textile industry began to shift South and many of Lowell's textile mills began to move or close. Although the South did not have rivers capable of providing the waterpower needed to run the early mills, the advent of steam-powered factories allowed companies to take advantage of the cheaper labor and transportation costs available there. Labor strikes in the North became more frequent, and severe ones like the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike in neighboring Lawrence were driving up costs for investors.
And from the South the mills moved even farther south, to Mexico and elsewhere, in order to find cheaper, meeker, more desperate workers willing to put up with abuse in order to feed themselves and their families.

*Go to the link to read all of Thomas Dublin's WOMEN, WORK, AND PROTEST IN THE EARLY LOWELL MILLS: "THE OPPRESSING HAND OF AVARICE WOULD ENSLAVE US" piece  it's worth it.
Suffragette City—David Bowie

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