Women in Industry Heading



Industrial Revolution (1800-1880) 

                                                                                              “Let oppression shrug her shoulders,
                                                                                               And a haughty tyrant frown,
                                                                                               And little upstart Ignorance,
                                                                                               In mockery look down.
                                                                                               Yet I value not the feeble threats
                                                                                               Of Tories in disguise,
                                                                                               While the flag of Independence
                                                                                               O’er our noble nation flies.”
                                                                                               -Poem in the “Union is Power” strike statement, Lowell MA, Feb. 1834

At the start of the 19th century, America was largely rural, and most families depended on agriculture for their livelihoods.  The rise of industrialization, which began in New England and spread to the South and the West, created new economic opportunities in developing mill towns and industrial cities. Women in both rural and urban areas engaged in paid labor both inside and outside the home. 

They were occupied in the work they had traditionally performed on farms before industrialization, as well as in new forms of industrial labor that tended to be in line with those older occupations.

The experiences of African American and immigrant women were different from America-born women of European descent.  Gender definitions and the rise of industrialization shaped the labor experiences of all women, but African Americans and immigrants faced the added burdens of racial and ethnic perceptions.  As women’s labor expanded and changed during the 19th century, women workers in various occupations united into workers’ organizations for labor reform.    

Women working on a farm
women working in cotton fields
African-Americans working in a cotton
field on a plantation in South Carolina

In rural areas, agricultural labor and labor at home were the major occupations of women.  Wives and daughters on farms in the North often gardened and tended livestock, and, during the Civil War, some women took over the management of family farms while their husbands were serving in the army. (2) 

In the post-Civil War North, industrialization had mostly overtaken agriculture as the major economic activity, but farming remained crucial to the post-war South’s economy.  Despite African American women’s emancipation from slavery after the Civil War, the vast majority of them remained in the South and continued to perform the same arduous physical labor they had done when they were enslaved, working as sharecroppers on cotton and tobacco plantations. (3)


Labor from home, the production of goods within the home for outside markets, was a crucial source of income for many rural families during the 19th century.  Women in New England and the Midwest had always sold home-made food items in local marketplaces for “butter and egg” money. (4)  

Navajo Women Weaving
Navajo Weavers


woman spinning
Women Spinning Thread


The development of textile and garment mills in towns across the Northern United States in the 1810s and 1820s, after New England entrepreneur Francis Cabot developed an American version of the English water-powered loom in 1910, created a new way for women to sell home-made goods in outside markets.  During the winter, when there was a lull in farm activity, wives and young daughters wove hats and other cloth goods from factory-spun cotton and made leather shoes and then sold them back to the manufacturer.  Spinning and weaving clothes and making shoes for their family members had been a common occupation for farm women since colonial times, but industrialization transformed it into a paid form of labor. (5)  


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Image 1 from Archenfield Archaeology, Image 2 from The New York Public Library, Image 3 from the Peabody Museum at Harvard University, Image 4 from Metropolitan Museum of Art


(c) Copyright National Women's History Museum 2007