Women’s History Month: The Mill Girls of Lowell

The Lowell Mill Girls were young female workers who came to work in industrial corporations in Lowell, Massachusetts, during the Industrial Revolution in the United States. Recruited by the corporations, they were daughters of propertied New England farmers, typically between the ages of 15 and 35. By 1840, the height of the Industrial Revolution, the Lowell textile mills had recruited over 8,000 workers, mostly women, who came to make up nearly three-quarters of the mill workforce, at a very slow rate, most were forced to work faster than they could.

According to Wiki:

The sense of community from working and living together contributed directly to the energy of the first union of women workers, the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association. Started by 12 operatives in January 1845, its membership grew to 500 within six months, and continued to expand rapidly. Unlike many middle-class women activists, the operatives found considerable support from working-class men who welcomed them into their reform organizations and advocated for their treatment as equals.

A Recruitment Poster For Mill Workers

One of its first actions was to send petitions signed by thousands of textile workers to the Massachusetts General Court demanding a ten-hour work day. In response, the Massachusetts Legislature established a committee chaired by William Schouler, Representative from Lowell, to investigate and hold public hearings, during which workers testified about conditions in the factories and the physical demands of their twelve-hour days. These were the first investigations into labor conditions by a governmental body in the United States. The 1845 Legislative Committee determined that it was not state legislature’s responsibility to control the hours of work. The LFLRA called its chairman, William Schouler, a “tool” and worked to defeat him in his next campaign for the State Legislature. A complex election Schouler lost to another Whig candidate over the issue of railroads. The impact of working men [Democrats] and working women [non-voting] was very limited. The next year Schouler was re-elected to the State Legislature.

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The Lowell female textile workers continued to petition the Massachusetts Legislature and legislative committee hearings became an annual event. Although the initial push for a ten-hour workday was unsuccessful, the LFLRA continued to grow, affiliating with the New England Workingmen’s Association and publishing articles in that organization’s Voice of Industry, a pro-labor newspaper. This direct pressure forced the Board of Directors of Lowell’s textile mills to reduce the workday by 30 minutes in 1847. The FLRA’s organizing efforts spilled over into other nearby towns. In 1847, New Hampshire became the first state to pass a law for a ten-hour workday, although there was no enforcement and workers were often requested to work longer days. By 1848, the LFLRA dissolved as a labor reform organization. Lowell textile workers continued to petition and pressure for improved working conditions, and in 1853, the Lowell corporations reduced the workday to eleven hours.

The New England textile industry was rapidly expanding in the 1850s and 1860s. Unable to recruit enough Yankee women to fill all the new jobs, to supplement the workforce textile managers turned to survivors of the Great Irish Famine who had recently immigrated to the United States in large numbers. During the Civil War, many of Lowell’s cotton mills closed, unable to acquire bales of raw cotton from the South. After the war, the textile mills reopened, recruiting French Canadian men and women. Although large numbers of Irish and French Canadian immigrants moved to Lowell to work in the textile mills, Yankee women still dominated the workforce until the mid-1880s

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