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.


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