Mill Girls to Political Activists

How did mill institutions lead young women to become politically active and challenge the traditional roles of women?

The time table to which the girls were forced to comply
 During the Industrial Revolution, many cultural changes were brought about by the mills. The young women who were employed made a transition from the role of domestic housewife into an array of activists: labor reformists, abolitionists, and women's right's activists, among others.

 Before the mills, a typical farm girl would have grown up working in the home until she was married off in her teens or early twenties. She was a domestic housewife, and had no say in any outside affairs, like politics, which at that time were considered strictly male business. But when Francis Cabot Lowell introduced the power loom to the US, industrial cotton mills took off, thus unintentionally founding the workplaces that would breed the LFLRA and its likes. This was to be the start of women's rights and labor reform.  Starting around 1820, these women gave themselves a voice through the labor reform movement, creating a new space in politics and giving rise to a new way of female thought, branching off from the private sphere of home life that had contained the American woman so long. They fought to be heard in the male-dominated world of government and industry, beginning with the first "turnout", or strike, in 1833, when some 1500 mill girls ceased their work and walked out of their Lowell factory to protest wage reduction. The strike was unsuccessful, but little did that stop the girls. In the years to come, there would be many such turnouts, accompanied by petition after petition to the state government of Massachusetts, mainly over the issue of a shorter workday. These petitions, which were signed by thousands of workers, would come to be called the "10 hour movement", aptly named as the focus of the movement was to shorten the work day in the mills from 14 to 10 hours a day. The 1840's saw continuous strikes and petitions from the factory girls, all unsuccessfully swaying the government and mill owners. In fact, it was not until 1874, after the Civil War, that the law changing the workday was passed, unfortunately long after the girls had stopped working in the mills. Their places had been taken over by immigrants willing to work for a much lower wage. 

As industry revolutionized the country, all kinds of women, not just those who worked in the factories and gave start to the labor reform movement, began to publicly advocate for women's rights and other causes. In the mid-1800's female abolitionists were on the rise, led by those who had also emerged as the protagonists of the labor reform and female right's era, namely Sarah Bagley, Luctretia Mott, and the Grimké sisters, among others. Like the Temperance Movement, which condemned drinking, abolitionism found roots in the growing field of reform efforts. As the workers protested their own enslavement to the mills, the notion of abolitionism grew, gaining female support. 

Women's rights efforts snowballed after the first convention held in Seneca Falls, New York in July of 1848, and the women of America had begun to forge the path that would eventually result in their right to vote. While the men who started the first mills that led to the Industrial Revolution in the United States did not know it at the time, their actions would indirectly lead women to challenge their traditional roles, rise above what they were told to do, and establish themselves permanently in political society as a force to be reckoned with.

Strikes of the 1830's and the "Bread & Roses Strike" of 1912.

     Workers at the mill had many reasons to strike, or refuse to work.  Working at the mills was a dangerous business.  There was a high death rate due to poor working conditions, overworking, crowding, and hazardous machinery.  Wages at the mills were low and the cost of their housing was very high. In the summer, it was extremely hot in the mills, and bitter cold in the winter.  In addition, it was kept very humid to keep the thread from breaking.  These harsh conditions led workers to several strikes in the 1830's, including one in Lowell in 1834, and another in 1836, which were unsuccessful.  Though the strikes did not produced the desired results, they were effective in organizing the mill girls and communicating the discontentment to the public and the mill owners.  The Lowell mill girls are known as the first union of working women.  
Helen Gurley Flynn, Union Organizer, Speaks at a Rally
     What became known as the "Bread and Roses Strike of 1912" included both mill girls and male immigrants who wanted better working conditions and higher pay.  The strike began in Lawrence, Massachusetts, on January 11, when workers found on payday that their wages had been cut.  A few Polish workers started the strike by walking off the job.  The next day 10,000 people walked off the jobs at various mills.  Over the next three months, the army of strikers grew to over 25,000 workers.  The strikes were mostly peaceful, but there were occasional outbreaks of violence and looting.  The majority of the violence was against the strikers by the militia that the government sent in to keep order.  At one point the striking workers were sprayed with fire hoses, and a group of women and children were brutally clubbed by police, which caused public sentiment to turn towards the workers.  On March 12, 1912, the American Woolen Company gave in and accepted the demands of the workers, which were, a 15 percent rise in pay, double pay for overtime, and amnesty for the strikers.  The name of the strike comes from a sign that was seen being carried by a mill girl, that read, "We Want Bread and Roses, Too,"  The sign was a quote from a poem by James Oppenheim.  

Songs of the Workers

These are songs that workers sang during the "Bread and Roses" strike, to their children and during parades. 

"BREAD AND ROSES"   Written as a poem in 1911 by James Oppenheim
As we go marching, marching, in the beauty of the day 
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts grayAre touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,For the people hear us singing, bread and roses, bread and roses.

As we come marching, marching, we battle too, for men, For they are in the struggle and together we shall win. Our days shall not be sweated from birth until life closes, 
Hearts starve as well as bodies, give us bread, but give us roses.

As we come marching, marching, un-numbered women dead,Go crying through our singing their ancient call for bread, 
Small art and love and beauty their trudging spirits knew,Yes, it is bread we. fight for, but we fight for roses, too.
As we go marching, marching, we're standing proud and tall,
The rising of the women means the rising of us all.
No more the drudge and idler, ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life's glories, bread and roses, bread and roses.

Click "Play" to Hear "Bread and Roses"  as Sung by Judy Collins

Bibliography of the page

Women at Work by Thomas Dublin
Columbia University Press, 1979