The rise of the Industrial Revolution created a boom in textile mills and more jobs opportunities for women outside the home. Having some financial independence, organizing the first unions for women, and finding a political voice was an integral part of the growing suffrage movement.
In 1837, Sarah Bagley (1806-1889), was a typical small-town girl who came to the city of Lowell, MA to work at the mills. She became an excellent weaver. She also wrote for the factory magazine, the “Lowell Offering,” which was owned by the factory bosses and was more about positive propaganda than real reporting. Sarah penned a classic article called, “The Pleasures of Factory Work.” Portrayed as respectable work places suitable for young single women between the ages of 15-35, the company provided with dorms with matron chaperones, had strict codes of moral conduct and mandatory church services; the reality was anything but pleasurable.
There is no record of what changed her from dutiful “mill girl” into one of the first labor leaders. The mills were overcrowded, poorly-ventilated, work environments with little to no safety regulations. Most shifts were 13 hours long. Children as young as six were hired to go behind fast-moving mechanical looms to change bobbins. Horrible accidents occurred.
Mill girls finally had enough in 1834 when bosses cut their wages. A group of them organized the first strike marched to other mills encouraging workers to join them. No one had ever seen mill workers—especially women—fight back. The horrified bosses immediately quashed the strike. Within a week, the workers were forced to go back for less wages. A second strike happened in 1836, also triggered by a wage cut. The results were the same. In 1842 another strike ended with firings and blacklisting participants
By 1844, the workers decided to get better organized and start a union. The Lowell Female Labor Reform Association (LFLRA) became the first union of working women in the United States. Sarah Bagley was the president. The LFLRA published their own newsletters and magazines describing the actual factory work conditions. They welcomed textile workers from other mills and teamed up with the New England Workingmen’s Association (NEWA) Despite not having the power to vote, the women organized petitions and Sarah, herself, was asked to testify in making the case for a 10-hour work day before the Massachusetts State Legislature. The measure failed because the politicians were not willing to move against the powerful mill owners.
Sarah left the LFLRA in 1846 after three years of radical activism and went on to break another gender barrier by becoming the first female telegraph operator. Despite trepidations and a newspaper actually writing in an article, “Can a woman keep a secret?” Sarah was outstanding and opened the career for other women. Later in 1848 she briefly returned to the mills as a weaver for a few months, then went home to care for her sick father. There is no clear record of her after that.
Many times, pioneers lose the most and gain the least but they lay the foundation for the future. Even though they lost during the strikes, the women learned that they could stand up and fight back against unfair working conditions. Thanks to Sarah Bagley and the other brave factory workers, both men and women, we have better labor laws and safer working conditions.
Bonus: This week’s quote comes from Mary Harris Jones, best known as “Mother Jones.” She earned the title of “most dangerous woman in American” for helping miners organize strikes and protests for fair working conditions. She was also the first major advocate for child labor laws. Lawmakers in the U.S. Senate denounced her as the “grandmother of all agitators,” to which she replied “I hope to be the great-grandmother of all agitators.”
This week’s song pick:
“9 to 5” by Dolly Parton https://youtu.be/UbxUSsFXYo4
Be a Mill Girl! Choose your own adventure online game!
Episode 06 Sources