Mill Girl, Me Too, 2

(continued from the previous post)

Upon finding these sources, I wanted to know where else I might find evidence of people discussing harassment in and out of the workplace. A great source on many topics is The Lowell Offering, a magazine made by and for factory operatives from 1840-1845. Harriet Farley, one of the magazine’s editors, wrote the following in 1845:  “Another evil, to which factory girls may possibly be subjected, is, that of ‘flirtation,’ or insincere courtship.” Coming to a new place, these young women “are afar from fathers and brothers, that they are ignorant of the gallantries, and even of the courtesies of city gentlemen, that they are young, guileless, and confiding, it may be imagined that much unhappiness—to use the gentlest term—is the result.” Farley is making it clear that far from the idyllic picture painted by many corporation owners, women were not always secure in Lowell. She also notes, however, that not all women who entered into relationships were “fallen” women: “We will not allude to those errors were both are equally guilty, where there is no confidence betrayed; where there was no fall, because there was no elevation of character.” (282)

Historian Peter Baldwin gives us more context for “insincere” attention in his study, In the Watches of the Night. Focusing on women’s after-work hours, Baldwin notes that “women felt safe on the streets of Lowell because of their large numbers and the relative scarcity of men. Women in their twenties made up fully 25 percent of Lowell’s population in 1840, outnumbering men that age more than two to one. Teenage girls outnumbered teenage boys more than three to one.” While one contemporary observer noted that “at a given point on Central or Merrimack streets, for half an hour, of a pleasant evening, and probably two to three thousand people would pass him…three fourths are female” (39) women still did not always feel safe even in such large numbers. Baldwin argues, “Lowell women learned to avoid passing certain street corners or saloons.” (40) Late at night, “When the streets grew nearly deserted after the 10:00 p.m. curfew in the boardinghouses, young men drifted to the backstreet taverns or to brothels on the fringe of town.” (40)

On one end of the spectrum, I was finding evidence of undesired attention. On the other, I was soon discovering, were cases of extreme violence that were held up as examples. In instances were men violently abused or even murdered women, however, the lesson was not for men, but for women. In analyzing this aspect of the history, I took particular care with reading Elizabeth A. De Wolfe’s Murder of Mary Bean and Other Stories. This provided a context for understanding acts of violence (broadly defined) in “new” factory towns in New England in the 19th century. De Wolfe notes that with the high profile case of Sarah Cornell, her “death challenged mill agents’ claims that factory life was safe for the first generation of factory girls.” (57) Cornell wasn’t alone, either–there was also the case of Caroline Adams in Lawrence, MA and Berengera Caswell (1850).

On the one hand, mill girls read “prescriptive literature” which “asserted that once a woman began to turn away from virtue, there was no escape from ruin.” (23) Yet women like Caswell, who’d worked in Lowell then Manchester, NH (49) knew that life was not so black and white. They read about “menstrual regulators” in newspapers (25) and knew that in cases of consensual and non-consensual relationships, some women sought abortions. In Caswell’s instance, it was a badly performed abortion that led to her death and tragically, the dumping of her body in Saco, Maine. Caswell as found after a thaw. Descendants claimed she died in an ice skating accident. De Wolfe elegantly reminds us that her “life of independence and labor in the textile factories was erased and replaced with the memory of Berry in the heart of her domestic circle, a passive, and innocent victim once more.” (59) A sanitized view of the past makes no room for the lives of these women, nor for the kind of struggles they faced. This is why, more than a century later, we can imagine the Me Too movement as an entirely novel phenomenon.

There are still a few more Lowell sources worth exploring. Closer to home, Lowell operatives knew that some women took their own lives in situations of crisis. In 1849, Orrilla Durrell’s choice to die in a canal in a tightly packed city must have been highly traumatic for other operatives. Officially, she was “jilted” by a man in town; we cannot know the truth of their relationship or what she was really facing in that moment. De Wolfe provides excellent context for how this story was disseminated here. But in using these kinds of histories for a public program, it is important to remember that detailed, place-based anecdotes are not told simply for their own sake. We use stories in a public forum like a community conversation to reveal something specific and universal. Sitting in an old cotton mill, with a canal still flowing outside, it is important to pause, to consider what it must have been like (truly, the horror) of finding a colleague in desperation and crisis who chose to end her life in the rush of the power source of the city.

Karen Abbott’s work on mashing and harassment reminds us that these incidents are about control. As women came into new workplaces in large numbers, they knew their place financially; the best paid woman made less than any man. Yet these acts of violence and violation cut deeper. With mashing, Abbott explains, “Beneath the surface, the threat is there, letting women know that if they wanted more freedoms to venture out into society, then they would have to deal with this sort of attention. Mashing was a way to put women back in ‘their places’ and police their activity, decisions, and whereabouts.”

By way of conclusion, I want to honor the important work of historian Mary Blewett, who conducted the many interviews that served as the basis for both her book, The Last Generation, and much of the interpretive material at Lowell NHP. History may not repeat itself, but it does echo. In a city known for working women, Blewett notes that in the 1940s, it was still a shock for men to see women working at night. She argues, “To many men, the women who worked in the mills during World War II as slashers or for the first time on the night shift seemed a degraded and unsavory group.” (152) Once again, even being out at night was seen as an indictment of one’s character and in some cases, an opening for indecent conduct. It was no secret either, and we must not forget that. Prominent men who owned factories “were well aware of the sexual harassment of women by supervisors, which was one good reason to see to it that wives or daughters never entered the mill.” (154) One of the workers who is quoted in the book, and in the exhibit says simply: “the boys used to get away with murder!”

Perhaps the most chilling words in her book are these: “those whose memories were too painful refused to be interviewed.” (xvii) There are the stories we know, that we must grapple with, and many, many more that we will never know. Thus, we ended our program with a reflection on how we might think about “mill girls” and all workers differently. We handed out little slips of paper, encouraging people to share anything there that they had not wanted to say out loud. Several people wrote the two words that launched a new social movement. Several more wrote another two-word phrase: thank you.

Mill Girl, Me Too

On October 15, 2017, Alyssa Milano took to Twitter and encouraged “women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted” to write just two words: “Me too.” This, she hoped, would “give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem”–and it did. What is now referred to as the Me Too Movement began a decade earlier, not in Hollywood but with activist Tarana Burke. It was her words that provided the foundation, and Milano’s high profile status, that ignited a firestorm and a reckoning that continues today.

Almost exactly one year after Milano hit send on her tweet, the museum I work in hosted a community conversation on the history of sexual harassment. The title for this talk had slipped out of my mouth months earlier. Walking through the exhibits, noisy keys dangling from my carabiner, I imagined a program entitled “Mill Girl, Me Too.” This idea came to fruition in October 2018, serving as the first dialogue in a series called Lowell Talks.

When Lowell National Historical Park was first authorized by Congress more than 40 years ago, sexual harassment as we understand it today was finally being openly discussed in the context of the workplace. This site was created, in part, to tell worker’s stories, and especially women’s stories, in the contexts of labor and immigration history.  From the beginning, the park’s signature museum has included placards with workers’ words, verbatim, as well as a series of videos with oral histories. One of the placards in the weave room includes the words of a worker who experienced frequent harassment. It is popular to talk about “hidden” or “missing” histories as if the past is a balloon that slips from our fingers on a windy hilltop. This story was right here, all along, and this was the time to better understand who among her colleagues might have added “me, too” to her words.

The program we put together was not a lecture–it was a dialogue. One of the goals of this was to achieve a better shared understanding of sexual harassment as a historical problem and as an aspect of the lived experience today. To ensure that we had the right expertise in the room, we invited Isa Woldeguiorguis, a community leader and nationally recognized expert on anti-violence who serves as the Executive Director of The Center for Hope and Healing. After a question and answer period between me and Ms. Woldeguiorguis, we planned for the rest of the program to be a facilitated group dialogue. We followed the guidelines set out out by the Sites of Conscience, and heeded Sarah Pharaon’s statement: “Essential museums cannot fear being perceived as political in a world where all actions are becoming politicized.”

There is only so much that one can prepare in anticipation of a group dialogue. Simply put, you don’t know who will be coming, what stories they may want to share, or where the conversation will go. What I want to share here is how prepared for this discussion. If our guest was going to serve as an expert on the issue from a contemporary perspective, I wanted to be able to provide the historical background and context.

Here is some of what I read to get a sense of the scope of the problem of harassment today: Pew ResearchHidden Activists. This gave me a balanced look at the impact of Milano’s work AND the labor of working-class women fighting against systems of harassment today.

I then turned to the work of historians who were looking at this issue from a longer perspective. I especially recommend this article: Molly Brookfield, “Why It’s Bad When It’s ‘Not That Bad’” Nursing Clio May 1, 2018. Brookfield explains:

“At the turn of the twentieth century, women began to campaign against ‘mashers’ and ‘male flirts,’ men who accosted women in city streets. While ‘mashing,’ like street insults, involved all sorts of annoying and threatening behaviors, commentary on the phenomenon often latched on to looking, ogling, or leering as the most bothersome behavior.”

Here’s why this article was especially important. It gave me a period-specific term to research: mashing. If you are looking for the history of harassment with that term, you won’t find very much. As a quick aside, the term “sexual harassment” wasn’t widely used until the 1970s, with Sexual Shakedown. 

Next, I looked back through my general resources on “mill girls” to build something of a profile for this program. Per Thomas Dublin’s research in Women and Work, Mill girls generally: married later and married differently from their rural peers. They were also entering a veritable “world of women” upon coming to Lowell, where women might outnumber men 3:1 in certain contexts. Did this make them more or less vulnerable?

I decided to go back to the words written by early mill operatives to find some of my answers. A letter that had struck me as odd some months ago came back into my memory. On March 3, 1852, Eliza Bixby wrote the following to her brother: 

“I am glad Lydia has made up her mind to go and earn her own living but I am sorry very sorry she has been so regardless of my advice to her about going top that mill I have worked there before her…one objection which is greater than all the rest is that she has gone to work for Mr H- for he is one of the greatest villains I ever got acauinted with without exceptions I summered and wintered there before I even dreamed of his character which proved to be to seduce every innocent girl that was in his power let me tell you of one instance of his artfulness”

Later: “he beconed to me to come sit on his knee I refused….he locked the door then seated himself by my side and took that ring off his finger and put it on mine…then put his arm around me clinching both of my wrists put his face over my nose so I could not breathe through it. At the same time sucking my breath from my mouth untill [sic] I became so exasted I lay me down on the sofa at that moment a rap at the door stoped his career…

Call me a baby for being [willing] left alone yet do not expose me out of the family I told you this as proof of Mr H—character and this is but one instance they are two numerous to mention yet he is a mon of good qualities I fear they  are very few that him that he has not tried  to rob of there Chastity I wish Lydia would shun this man as she would a lion for he is an artful rogue”

This letter is not that difficult to decipher: Lydia is describing a serial harasser, a menace to the community. She is also making us privy, so many years later, to a second fact: women DID write to one another, and other family members, about predatory people in the workplace. This is not a whisper network, it’s a peer into a letter chain that has somehow survived.

Notably, another case from around this period ended up in the Lowell Daily Courier. An article from December 20, 1847 relates the testimony of Elvira C. Mitchell against Dr. Ingalls, Farmer in Lowell:

  • ‘He held me by the throat, so that I could not ___’
  • “Elvira was examined minutely upon points of a delicate nature, in order to lay a foundation for corroboratory evidence.”
  • ‘She did not scream. He held her so that she could not cry out.’
  • “Mrs Tuck of Beverly…recollects that Elvira walked out with Miss Farmer. When they came home, heard them converse on the stairs; Elvira said she was a ruined girl, that she could never look her friends in the face again.”

There is more coverage, this time from the Boston Post, December 18, 1847, p.2: 

“Dr Ingalls, a short, pale young man, on an indictment alleging that at Lowell, on the 18th of May, upon Elvira C. Mitchell, he violently and feloniously an assault did make…”

This article reminds us that “Miss Mitchell” was a minor: 16 years old. She worked for the Suffolk Corporation. She may have imagined that Lowell would be an adventure–an opportunity to earn money for herself, for others, or for a future.