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Women's labor

From the Lowell factory workers to the feminized role of the American schoolteacher, women began to make professional strides during the first half of the 19th century.


  • Industrialization in the early 1800s began drawing white Northeastern women out of the home and into the factory and schoolhouse. Particularly notable were the women who worked at the Lowell Mills in Massachusetts.
  • While many women worked for wages, others remained at home and professionalized the job of homemaker as part of the nineteenth-century cult of domesticity.
  • African American women in the South remained enslaved during this period, and were afforded none of the benefits of the cult of domesticity or independent labor. Native American women coped with increasingly precarious labor as Indian Removal and Manifest Destiny continued to push them farther west.

From artisans to factory workers

During the 17th and 18th centuries, artisans—skilled, experienced craft workers—produced goods by hand. But when President Jefferson embargoed British manufactured goods from late 1807 to early 1809 to protect US production, New England merchants began to invest in industrial enterprises similar to those of the British to replace the banned markets. By 1812, 78 new textile mills had been built in rural New England towns.
Workers were organized the way that they had been in English factories, in family units. Under this system, named the Rhode Island system after where it began, the father was placed in charge of the family unit, and he directed the labor of his wife and children, oftentimes outside of the factory itself. This was commonly known as the "putting-out system." For example, a factory owner might give a worker ten yards of fabric and demand five shirts by the end of the week. The worker would make buttons, his kids would cut the fabric, and his wife would sew.

The Lowell girls

Francis Cabot Lowell, an American businessman, began to reform the manufacturing industry by hiring women and creating a centralized workplace. Lowell founded the Boston Manufacturing Company in 1813, building a few mills, the most famous of which was in Lowell, Massachusetts—a town that was named after Lowell himself. In contrast to many smaller mills, the Boston Associates’ enterprises avoided the Rhode Island system, preferring individual workers to families. These employees were not difficult to find. While young men could work at a variety of occupations, young white women had fewer options and more experience working with textiles. The Boston Manufacturing Company preferred this system since the women could be easily managed and restricted while living and working on factory grounds.
Needing to reassure anxious white parents that their daughters’ virtues would be protected from the problems of industrialization—filth and vice—the Boston Associates established strict rules governing the lives of these young workers. The women lived in boarding houses, woke early at the sound of a bell, and worked a 12-hour day during which talking was forbidden. They could not swear or drink alcohol, and they were required to attend church.
The Lowell textile mill. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Women's work experience

The women working for the Boston Associates were expected to report early in the morning and to work all day. They could not leave when they were tired or take breaks other than at designated times. Those who arrived late found their pay docked; five minutes’ tardiness could result in several hours’ worth of lost pay. The monotony of repetitive tasks made days feel particularly long. Most factory employees toiled 10 to 12 hours a day, six days a week.
Women at work spinning textiles at a mill in Alabama. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Work was not only tiresome, but also dangerous. The presence of cotton bales alongside the oil used to lubricate machines made fire a common problem in textile factories. Workers’ hands and fingers were maimed or severed when they were caught in machines; in some cases, their limbs or entire bodies were crushed. Workers who didn’t die from such injuries almost certainly lost their jobs, and no compensation was provided.
Overseers kept a paternalistic eye on the young women’s behavior and oftentimes fired or evicted women for failing to meet quotas. Corporal punishment was common in factories. Where abuse was most extreme, children sometimes died as a result of injuries suffered at the hands of an overseer.
Some of the youngest spinners. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Women workers and the labor movement

Many workers undoubtedly enjoyed some of the new wage opportunities factory work presented. For many of the young white women in New England, the experience of being away from the family was exhilarating and provided a sense of solidarity among the workers. Though most sent a large portion of their wages home, women having even a small amount of money of their own was a liberating experience, and many used their earnings to purchase clothes and other consumer goods for themselves.
The long hours, strict discipline, and low wages, however, soon led workers to organize to protest their working conditions and pay. In 1821, the young women employed by the Boston Manufacturing Company in Waltham went on strike for two days when their wages were cut.
In the 1830s, the female workers in Lowell formed the Lowell Factory Girls Association to organize strike activities in the face of wage cuts; they later established the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association to protest the 12-hour workday. The organization also put out a regular newspaper detailing their negative work experiences. Even though strikes were rarely successful, women initiated work stoppages as a form of labor protest, taking groundbreaking political action in the public sphere.
The Constitution of the Lowell Factory Girls Association, written in 1836. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Homemakers and schoolteachers

While industrialization led to radical changes in female American life, many white women elected to stay at home and began to glorify the profession of a housewife. This became known as the cult of domesticity—the philosophy that women retained serious power by controlling the household. However, the idealized notion that women had more autonomy in their job selection, even if they were homemakers, excluded many middle-class women who were restricted to the domestic sphere.
Catharine Beecher, an early feminist, also suggested that women were uniquely able to educate. Women were seen as the moral compasses of the family and were therefore expected to teach the way of the world to the children. As the teaching profession became “feminized,” men fled from schoolhouses and women took over. Both within the mills and the schools, women celebrated the idea of "household smarts" which were necessary to succeed in such workplaces. They ultimately leveraged their power in the home, factory, and schools to gain public attention in the first women’s rights movement.

Minority women's work in the era of slavery and Indian Removal

Enslaved women in the South were stripped of their motherhood identity in order to work the fields of plantations for no wages. Paradoxically, they were still required to do female domestic duties, like cooking and cleaning, as well. Furthermore, women were used to propagate a slaveowner's economic assets by having children that would be born into slavery under the slaveowner's jurisdiction. Enslaved women gave birth to their first child at the average age of nineteen; oftentimes their children were fathered by their owner. For example, historians agree that Thomas Jefferson had children with his slave, Sally Hemings.
Meanwhile, Native American women were pushed westward by the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Native American women had to harvest and produce hides for trade with encroaching explorers from the East.

What do you think?

How was the labor movement connected to the first women’s rights movement?
How did race determine the professional options of women in the early 1800s?

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