Early Women Workers and the Class Struggle


March 1997
Vol. 106 No. 12


Women have always been workers, whether at home, on the farm, in the factory or in service occupations. During the early years of the 19th century, when the United States was undergoing the transition from an agricultural to a manufacturing economy, women workers played a crucial role in the economic transition of the country. One of the greatest changes came with the development and mechanization of the textile industry.

Long before the appearance of large-scale industrialization in textile production, women performed essential work in this phase of the economy. In their homes, they turned the raw wool, flax and cotton into yarn and thread on their spinning wheels and the yarn into cloth on their hand looms. They then made the cloth into clothing for the entire family. Working at home, these married women and farmers' daughters still produced two- thirds of all the clothing made in the country as late as 1820.

With the introduction in the late 18th and early 19th centuries of machine production of textiles, and especially with the introduction of the power loom to mass produce cloth for a ready market, the lives of women workers began to change as they more and more left their work-at-home lives for work in the factories. Household manufactures steadily gave way to wage work.

Factory owners hired both men, women and children, but found that women and children could be had cheaper. Widows with children of working age were particularly desirable, for widows living alone faced poverty and therefore provided a stable, permanent and readily exploitable work force for the factories. Farm daughters not needed at home, and unmarried village and city young women, also provided a ready supply of laborers for the mills.

>From skilled home laborers producing for their own need, at their own regulated time, women workers had become hired laborers working according to the clock, tending the machines 12 to 13 hours a day, six days a week, all year long, with only Sundays and three or four national holidays for respite. The day began at dawn, with a half hour for breakfast and a half hour for lunch, and ended at 7 or 7:30 p.m.

Most of the mills drew upon the labor in the villages where the mills were located. This pattern pertained especially in Pawtucket, R.I., where the first textile strike would take place. In Massachusetts, however, Francis Cabot Lowell initiated the boarding house system at his mill village in Waltham. Lowell had decided to appeal to the young farm daughters to work in his mill, and so established supervised boarding houses to assure families that their daughters would be well cared for away from home. Thus the first company town was established.

After Lowell's death in 1817, his associates followed his example, established a new mill village along the Merrimack River and named it Lowell. It followed the pattern of the Waltham boarding house system. A number of other New England mills followed this Lowell system.

The Massachusetts capitalists thus had a captive and isolated work force, easily disciplined and cheaper than their male workers, often housed in overcrowded sleeping rooms and subjected to rigid discipline both at work and in the boarding houses. The owners also required that a worker labor at the mill for one whole year to receive an honorable discharge if that worker intended to move on to other employment elsewhere. Without this discharge paper, the worker would be blacklisted, for no other employer would hire any new worker without such an approval from the previous employer.

In Pawtucket, R.I., the workers were drawn from the community itself; hence, no boarding house system was needed. The workers all had strong ties to their community and strong sympathizers in the village when they protested against an attempt by the mill owners to lengthen work hours and cut meal times.

The introduction of the power looms, which were operated by women, had effected an overproduction of cloth, which had caused a decrease in the price of cloth. The Pawtucket mill owners thus attempted to cut costs by reducing the wages of the women weavers -- workers deemed to be weaker and more controllable than male workers.

On May 24, 1824, the textile capitalists of Pawtucket announced that the next week, June 1, the hours of all workers would be increased an hour a day by decreasing meal times, and that the women weavers only would have their piece-rate compensation reduced by 25 percent. The $2 per week the women made was too much for women, anyway, the owners declared.

The answer of the women was an immediate "turnout," as a strike was then called. The women were completely supported by the people of the village, even those who did not work in the mills. Crowds gathered and visited the stately homes of the mill capitalists, jeering and loudly protesting this injustice. The turmoil persisted and the mills remained idle for slightly over a week. There was some property damage along the way, including a fire in cotton bales in one mill. On June 5, a Providence newspaper announced that the mill owners had reached a "compromise" and the mills were back in operation. A compromise is, of course, not a complete victory, but it was not a complete defeat for the workers, either. The owners had bowed to the solidarity of the community.

This appears to have been the first textile strike in the United States. It was led by women, but thoroughly supported by the whole working class of the village of Pawtucket.

Women workers continued to take leadership roles in early strikes, but not always with success. The first strike to be organized and led entirely by women was in 1828 in the Cocheco Manufacturing Co. in Dover, N.H.; a firm organized on the Waltham-Lowell plan. Restrictive regulations were introduced into both the boarding houses and the mill, including no talking and visiting in the mill. In response, 300 to 400 women "turned out" and marched with banners about town. The protest was brief but unsuccessful.

Similar protests took place in Lowell, Mass., in 1834 and 1836.

Lowell's first strike in 1834 was in retaliation over a reduction in piece rates, with 800 women "turning out" in solidarity against this attack on their dignity and equality. The strike, however, lasted only a few days and was unsuccessful.

The second strike in Lowell took place in 1836 as a result of owners' announcement to lower women's wages by increasing boarding house rates. Learning from their failures in the past, the women now used more successful tactics in their strike, shutting down first one workroom, then another in a mill, thus effectively halting production each day as if the whole mill work force had left. Between 1,500 and 2,000 women workers also "turned out" in this protest. With this pressure, they were able to cause several of the factories to come to terms with them.

These early conflicts were the beginning of women's long march toward equality in the workplace. It is a struggle that will not be completed until all production is owned and operated by the useful producers -- the workers themselves.

-- B.G.