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American Textiles in History: Lowell Mill Girls

August 4, 2020

Jennifer M. Woodson is a textile expert and consultant in the fashion industry.

The women not only spear-headed labor reform, but also created an early labor union, Factory Girls Association, and they started a publication The Lowell Offering where the Mill Girls would contribute sketches, poems, and other content. While the Lowell Mill girls may not have achieved fair working conditions for themselves, they did lay the groundwork for future generations to fight for the right for fair pay and working conditions.As time went on, the conditions worsened at the mills. Women were working 12-14 hours a day in terrible conditions. When a the mills decided to cut the women's pay, the women banded together in protest. They walked out of the mill and encouraged other women to do the same. The protest was short-lived and the women were forced to accept the pay cut. The pay cut and protest occurred a second time with the same outcome, but the women were not deterred. They were determined. Before automatic doffing systems that we have today, it was yarn spinning and textile mill operations were human-powered. In the New England region, much of the effort came from the a female workforce, a workforce that quickly became known as the "Lowell Mill Girls". The Lowell Mill Girls is a historical example of women empowering women.

The Lowell Mill Girls were young women from family farms in Lowell, Massachusetts, generally aged 18-35, but there are accounts of some female workers as young as 10 years old. The mills in Lowell offered pay and boarding for the women who came to work at the facilities. Some women used the income to support their family or to help send a brother to college, other women found the income to be a source of independence. The income opportunity was enticing for many women and ultimately helped to grow the local economy in Lowell as the women were able to make purchases of clothes, books, and other items at their own discretion. The financial independence was empowering for women, who at the time still did not have nearly as many rights as men.

Together, the Lowell Mill Girls formed the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association and in 1847, New Hampshire became the first state to pass a law imposing a ten-hour workday. Around the same time there was a large influx of Irish immigrants due to the Great Famine so many of the Mill Girls were replaced by immigrants who were eager for job, despite low-wages.