Lowell Mill Girls

The "Mill Girls" (or "Factory Girls," as they called themselves) were female workers who came to work for the textile corporations in Lowell, Massachusetts, during the Industrial Revolution in the United States. The women initially recruited by the corporations were daughters of propertied New England farmers, between the ages of 15 and 30. (There also could be "little girls" who worked there about the age of 13.) By 1840, at the height of the Industrial Revolution, the textile mills had recruited over 8,000 women, who came to make up nearly seventy-five percent of the mill workforce.

During the early period, women came to the mills of their own accord, for various reasons: to help a brother pay for college, for the educational opportunities offered in Lowell, or to earn a supplementary income for themselves. While their wages were only half of what men were paid, many were able to attain economic independence for the first time, free from the controlling influence of fathers and husbands. As a result, while factory life would soon come to be experienced as oppressive, it enabled these women to challenge assumptions of female inferiority and dependence.

As the nature of the new "factory system" became clear, however, many women joined the broader American labor movement, to protest the dramatic social changes being brought by the Industrial Revolution. While they decried the deteriorating factory conditions, worker unrest in the 1840s was directed mainly against the loss of control over economic life. This loss of control, which came with the dependence on the corporations for a wage, was experienced as an attack on their dignity and independence. In 1845, after a number of protests and strikes, many operatives came together to form the first union of working women in the United States, the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association. The Association adopted a newspaper called the Voice of Industry, in which workers published sharp critiques of the new industrialism. The Voice stood in sharp contrast to other literary magazines published by female operatives, such as the Lowell Offering, which painted a sanguine picture of life in the mills.

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