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 I 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 Research & Hidden 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.