Labor Day Is for Women

Lowell Mill girls
Labor Day belongs to women. That may not be the way most people look at it, but history shows us that some of the earliest agitators for workers’ rights were women. Take the women of the Lowell Mills in Massachusetts, for example. They set the pattern for the cooperative struggle that finally brought us Labor Day.

In the early 1800s, New England was primarily agricultural. Small farmers tilled the fields and raised livestock in most states. If a man did not own enough land for all of his sons to carry on with farming, there was plenty of land in the West that could be settled and farmed.

But times were changing. Manufacturing became another source of wealth after Francis Cabot Lowell imported the secret of English looms to America. The Lowell mills in Massachusetts took advantage of the easy availability of waterpower and the low cost of cotton from Southern states, and a new industry was born.

The Lowell Mills soon found a good source of cheap labor among the daughters of New England farmers. Girls in their late teens could earn as much as $1.85 to $3.00 a week in the mills. There was no need for the mill owners to worry about their health or stamina. If anything went wrong, they could be sent back to their families. And when they got married, their husbands were expected to take care of their retirement.

All of the young women lived in boarding houses owned by the factory and paid room and board out of their salaries. Their activities were supervised by the boarding house matrons who saw that the girls went to church every Sunday and did not engage in unseemly activities during the week. They were encouraged to continue their education by attending lectures and writing articles for the mill’s newspaper, Lowell Offering. You can read some of their writing in Benita Eisler’s anthology The Lowell Offering: Writings by New England Mill Woman.

When the economy sagged during the 1830s, the mill girls’ work hours were increased to 75 hours a week. Many of them no longer had time for writing or even reading. In 1834 and again in 1836, they joined together to go on strike and demand shorter hours. Both strikes were defeated, but the mill girls did not give up. In the 1840s they formed the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association to press for reducing the workday to 10 hours. Although women could not vote at that time, the mill girls started a petition campaign to bring their demands before the legislature. Unfortunately, despite the publicity generated, their efforts failed. The ten-hour day was not won for most workers until many years later. Mill owners discovered they could hire immigrant woman to work in the mills for long hours at lower pay than the local farm girls.

Although their early efforts were not successful, the Lowell Mills girls had started something. Years after their time had passed, other women such as Mother Jones and Rose Pesotta led successful drives to encourage women to join unions and make working conditions more humane. And one of the most famous union songs of all times, memorably recorded by Pete Seeger, was written by a woman:

Which Side Are You On?
A Song by Florence Patton Reese

Come all of you good workers
Good news to you I’ll tell
Of how that good old union
Has come in here to dwell

Chorus
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?

My daddy was a miner
And I’m a miner’s son
And I’ll stick with the union
Till every battle’s won

They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J.H. Blair

Labor Day would be a good day to listen to that song one more time.

3 thoughts on “Labor Day Is for Women

  1. Yes, Labor Day would be a GREAT day to listen to that song! Or any day! Thank you for reminding us of the important work unions have done AND of how important women have been in unions.

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