Women in Industry Heading

 

   


Industrial Revolution (1800-1880)

Mill Workers
Mill Workers

Urban factory work was a major occupation of native-born migrants from the countryside as well as immigrants.  Sixty-four percent of Boston’s female industrial workforce was immigrant in 1860.  Women workers performed the same unskilled jobs in urban mills as in the rural mills, and were paid much less than men, who often performed skilled jobs.  In Philadelphia in the 1830s, mill women made an average of $2.25 per week compared to men’s average weekly earnings of $6.50-$7.00. (16)

Women’s involvement in labor organization in the 19th century was centered in the manufacturing industries.  The cheap and readily available labor of young women in the very beginning of industrialism allowed the U.S. to more quickly expand. The young girls were willing and able to work while their male counterparts generally had to stay home and work on the farm.

The women generally liked being away from the drudgery of farm life. Earning their own money and living on their own was very liberating, despite the harsh conditions of the factories. The crowded, all-female environments of textile and garment factories created a feeling of community among women. (17) At the largest textile mill in New England, Lowell, MA, the women even started their own publication, The Lowell Offering, with their poetry and essays. Read an excerpt.

Portuguese Immigrant Lowell workers
Portuguese Immigrant Lowell workers

Power Loom
Power Loom

Lowell Workers
Lowell Workers

The first instances of women engaged in collective bargaining were in Rhode Island and New Hampshire textile mills in the 1820s, where groups of women workers “turned out,” or refused to work, and staged parades in protest of reduced wages and poor working conditions. (18) 

In the 1830's, the mill workers in Lowell, MA, petitioned, went on strike, and lobbied for legislative reform of the textile industry throughout the 1830's and 1840's.  The boardinghouses where the Lowell women workers lived were hotbeds of discontent—during meals women shared their common complaints about low wages, long hours, and unhealthy working conditions, and worked together to think of ways to improve their lives. (19)  In February of 1834, 800 women signed a petition and turned out in response to a wage reduction. (20)  Their strike was short lived, but gave the women involved hope for future success.  Two years later, the Lowell women staged the largest women’s strike to date when 1,500 to 2,000 women turned out for several months in protest of increased boardinghouse fees, virtually shutting down the factories. (21)  After this victory, the Lowell women formed the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association (LFLRA), which petitioned the Massachusetts state legislature for a 40 hour week every year throughout the 1840's. (22)  The Lowell strikes inspired similar collective action in mills across New England. 

Read two letters written by Lowell Worker Mary S. Paul.

Women who worked in government-subcontracted sewing industries during the Civil War adopted the LFLRA’s legislative tactics and petitioned the federal government for higher wages. (23)  Below is the Lowell Mill and to the right are boardinghouses.

Lowell Mill

Lowell Boardinghouse
 

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Image 1 from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Image 2 from the Library of Congress, Image 3 from the National Park Service, Image 4 from the The Smithsonian , Image 5 & 6 from the Library of Congress,

 

(c) Copyright National Women's History Museum 2007