In the 1830s, half a century before the better-known mass movements for workers' rights in the United States, the Lowell mill women organized, went on strike and mobilized in politics when women couldn't even vote—and created the first union of working women in American history.
The Lowell, Mass., textile mills where they worked were widely admired. But for the young women from around New England who made the mills run, they were a living hell. A mill worker named Amelia—we don't know her full name—wrote that mill girls worked an average of nearly 13 hours a day. It was worse than "the poor peasant of Ireland or the Russian serf who labors from sun to sun." Lucy Larcom started as a doffer of bobbins when she was only 12 and "hated the confinement, noise, and lint-filled air, and regretted the time lost to education," according to one historian.
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. They marched to several mills to encourage others to join them, gathered at an outdoor rally and signed a petition saying, "We will not go back into the mills to work unless our wages are continued."
No one had ever seen anything like this. But if the mill girls were exuberant, managers and owners were horrified. "An amizonian [sic] display," one fumed. "A spirit of evil omen has prevailed." And they determined to crack down on the mill girls.
A showdown came and the bosses won. Management had enough power and resources to crush the strike. Within a week, the mills were operating nearly at full capacity. A second strike in 1836—also sparked by wage cuts—was better organized and made a bigger dent in the mills' operation. But in the end, the results were the same.
Those were hard defeats, but the mill girls refused to give up. In the 1840s, they shifted to a different strategy: political action. They organized the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association to press for reducing the workday to 10 hours. Women couldn't vote in Massachusetts or anywhere else in the country, but that didn't stop the mill girls. They organized huge petition campaigns—2,000 signers on an 1845 petition and more than double that on a petition the following year—asking the Massachusetts state legislature to cap the work day in the mills at 10 hours.
They didn't stop there. They organized chapters in other mill towns in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. They published "Factory Tracts" to expose the wretched conditions in the mills. They testified before a state legislative committee.
What's more, they campaigned against a state representative who was one of their strongest opponents and handily defeated him.
So what did the Lowell mill girls really win? In the short term, not much. That's how it often is with the first pioneers in social justice movements. Both of their strikes were crushed. And the only victory they won in their 10-hour workday campaign was pretty hollow. In 1847, New Hampshire became the first state to pass a 10-hour workday law—but it wasn't enforceable.
That was in the short term. But in the long term, the Lowell mill girls started something that transformed this country. No one told them how to do it. But they showed that working women didn't have to put up with injustice in the workplace. They got fed up, joined together, supported each other and fought for what they knew was right.
One of the mill girls put it this way: "They have at last learnt the lesson which a bitter experience teaches, 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."
Today, millions of women in unions who teach our kids, fight our fires, build our homes and nurse us back to health owe a debt to the Lowell mill girls. They taught America a powerful lesson about ordinary women doing extraordinary things.
Foner, Philip S. (editor), The Factory Girls. University of Illinois Press, 1977. Howe, Daniel Walker, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1845. Oxford University Press, 2009. Eisler, Benita, The Lowell Offering: Writings by New England Mill Women, 1840-1845. J.B. Lippincott, 1977. Dublin, Thomas, "The Lowell Mills and the Countryside: The Social Origins of Women Factory Workers, 1830-1850," in Weible, Robert; Ford, Oliver; and Marion, Paul (editors), Essays from the Lowell Conference on Industrial History, 1980 and 1981. Lowell Conference on Industrial History, 1981.