The city of Lowell, Massachusetts hugs the Merrimack River, grateful to the water source that once played host to ten giant textile mills starting back in the 1830s. Energy surged through the town as over 10,000 power looms transferred raw cotton into finished cloth and 300,000 spindles guaranteed employment. In its heyday the mills produced a million yards of cloth per week.
But of course people had to work in those mills to produce the fabric. A better terminology would be that they toiled in the mills; and by ‘they’, I mean women and children. Lowell stands today as a testament to the once mighty power of the New England textile industry, but it was also the first place in America where workers went on strike. The most notable striker was an eleven year old girl – Harriet Hanson.
In today’s culture professional athletic teams strike, transportation workers shut down mass transit and auto workers can paralyze Detroit. But the strikes in Lowell were different because they were led entirely by women.
By ‘Turning Out’, as the early strikes were called, the female workers demonstrated that unfair practices would no longer be tolerated. They did not strike because of the thirteen hour workdays, or weekly wages of just under $2.00, or the unhealthy practice of nailing all windows shut to insure a constant humidity in the mills; they ‘turned out’ because the mill owners had decided to raise the profit margin by reducing the women’s wages in a unique way. Since most of the women had to board in town during the work week, and the mill owners also owned the boarding houses, they simply raised the rates of room and board, and then deducted it directly from the women’s take home pay. If any woman did not comply, she was promptly fired, and replaced by a new worker.
However, everything changed in 1836. Harriet Hanson had been working for a year as a bobbin girl, where she removed full bobbins of thread from the giant spinning frames and brought empty ones in replacement. At the age of eleven, she was a full time worker and readily understood the unfair and unhealthy treatment of the women in the factory. Lowell may have boasted its claim as the first planned industrial city in America, but for the women and children who worked in the mills it was a life of pure drudgery. Many workers only survived ten years, and deafness was a common result from the incessant noise of the behemoth machines. When the new higher board fee was announced many women complained and some talked about Turning Out. Others were too afraid to resist, lest they lose their jobs. The air hummed with indecisiveness.
Then Harriet stood up in the spinning room at the Lawrence Cotton Mill and announced that she for one was Turning Out. Miraculously, most of all the women in that room followed her. Once the other workers saw the women coming out with Harriet, a mass exodus occurred and the Lawrence Mill was effectively shut down for the day. Eventually the owners reconsidered the raise on room and board.
It would be wonderful to report that mill conditions improved, but they did not for many decades. Harriet continued to work as a mill girl, then got married, and became a lifelong participant in the Suffragette and Abolitionist Movements. She claimed that her most proud moment however, was when she led the Turn Out in 1836.
She died at the age of eighty six in 1911, before the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed, or women were granted the right to vote, or the Jim Crow Laws were abolished. But she held to the belief that courage and standing up for what you believe in, does make a difference – even if you have to wait years to see the fruits of your convictions.
Thanks to author Emily Arnold McCully for making me aware of Harriet Hanson Robinson.