History 246 Reading Guide

The New England Mill “Girls” Become a Working Class of Women

  • Thomas Dublin, “Women, Work, and Protest in the Early Lowell Mills:  The Oppressing Hand of Avarice would Enslave US,” Labor History 16.1 (1975), 99-116.  Business Source Complete  .pdf
  • Lise Vogel, “With Hearts to Feel and Tongues to Speak,” in M. Cantor and B. Laurie, Class, Sex and the Woman Worker (1974), 64-82.  (e-reserve)

Further reading:

  • Nancy F. Cott, et al., eds., “Striking Tailoresses Speak” (1831); “Petition for a Ten hour work day” (1845), Root of Bitterness: Documents of the Social History of American Women 2nd ed. (Northeastern University Press, 1996), 118-122, 156-160.  
  • Louisa May Alcott, “Servant” from Work:  a story of experience (1873), Ch. 2, 14-33, online at Cornell University Library, Making of America.  LINK

Questions:

The Mill “Girls” who worked in the cotton textile factories in Lowell and Lawrence, Massachusetts, represented the first large-scale industrial work force in the United States.

Thomas Dublin’s article provides an excellent overview of the cultural background of the first generation of textile mill workers, their experiences working in the cotton mills and living together in the corporation boardinghouses, and their responses to changing opportunities and circumstances within the mills.

  • How does Dublin define the “community” that these women workers found and created in the mills and boardinghouses? How was that sense of community fostered?
  • How did that community experience shape their responses to changing working conditions?
  • How did their united efforts alter their sense of themselves as women workers?
  • In what ways were their experiences and self-perceptions similar to and different from other native-born Anglo American women that we have studied?

Lise Vogel focuses on the extensive literary record, both published and unpublished, produced by many of the New England factory women.

  • How does Vogel characterize the two stereotypical accounts of factory life and experience? Do those characterizations overstate the differences?
  • Vogel suggests that the two perceptions were not incompatible, but in fact were rooted in the experience of this particular group of first-generation workers. What does she mean by her argument that “the consciousness of individuals does not conform in any simple way to the usual categories of political analysis,” (72).
  • How does Vogel describe and analyze the incompatibility and conflict between the visions of the “textile entrepreneurs” and the complex visions and responses of the mill workers?
  • In the end, what did the women textile-mill workers accomplish with their organized and united efforts of the 1830s and 1840s?