The Lowell Factory
March 28, 1888 — International Council of Women, Assembled by the National Woman Suffrage Association, Washington DC
I went into a Lowell factory when I was eleven years old, and worked fourteen hours a day. I had a dear mother, who gave me enough to eat, and took good care that I had sleep enough, and so it did not harm me. I went to the factory in the morning at 5 o’clock, worked two hours, and then ran out for my breakfast — a half-hour, perhaps — then went back for six hours more, and so the thing went on until 7 o’clock at night. I stayed there for eleven years, until I was married.
I remember the old life well. How good it was, and how many good women came there to work! Because then women could not make a living anywhere but in the factory. And so I think some of the best women came to Lowell; women who had not a single hope in the word; widows who were then called “relicts,” all sorts of women you speak of here — old maids and poor women with no position, whose fathers had left them nothing but the right to live on the farm as an incumbrance. But they finally heard of the Lowell factory and came there. And, oh, how hopeless they were! But the first money they earned! When they felt the jingle of the silver in their pocket, then for the first time, their heads became erect and they walked as if on air. And how they spent it! They dressed themselves, and had books for which they had longed, and the new life for them had begun. They learned to express their thoughts, and the lady is here on the platform whose husband was the best friend and helper those women ever knew. He did a great work for the women of New England. I consider the Lowell factory my alma mater. I am just as proud of it as many women are of the colleges in which they have been educated.
We had a magazine called the Lowell Offering, and read our articles we had written for it to Mr. Thomas, and he used to correct them for us if they needed it. I have written about it in the report of the Bureau of Statistics of Labor of Massachusetts. Among those girls are many known to fame. There were many who wrote books; some have written poems. Lucy Larcom, whom you all know, who really has a national fame, was one of these. She went there day after day with the rest of us, and worked and earned her living while she wrote her poems. Many of these authors went into other fields of labor. I became a reformer, because it seemed to me to be of more importance to help my race than it was to write verse, although I must confess that I like to write verses.
I had many experiences in my child life in the Lowell mills; one of them was to learn to be a striker. At 11 years of age I struck. I was a little doffer. I was so young and small that I was allowed to run out part of the hour when we were not busy taking off the full bobbins and replacing them with others. This had to be done exactly on the hour. And in that way I was taught to be prompt. The strike happened in this way: It was one of the first ones in this country, I think, and occurred in 1836. When the girls prepared to strike I joined with them. They had meetings, went to a field, I think, and some one talked to them; and finally a girl got up on a stump and made a speech. I do not remember exactly what she said, but I remember I thought it was the most dreadful thing in the world to hear a woman talking in public. Well, when the time came that we were to leave our work finally, the big girls would not start, and they hesitated and said, “Had we better strike, and will it do any good?” or, “I guess we might as well go back to work.” But I said, “I do not care who strikes, I going to strike,” and so, leading the procession of all those large girls, so much older than I, we marched out of the room.
The only bad result of all this was that my mother, who was a very poor woman, with four children, was turned out of her house by the agent of the corporation, who said: “The large girls among your boarders you could not prevent from striking, but your daughter, being so small, you certainly could control.” My dear mother never coerced her children, but permitted us to grow up in freedom of spirit and develop through our own hard experiences.
In 1836 a few of these factory girls formed themselves into a club, with a constitution and list of officers. One of the articles stated that they formed themselves into this organization for the purpose of improving the gifts which God had given them. This was the first woman’s club in New England, if not in all the world, and was the advance guard of Sorosis and the hundreds of other woman’s clubs which have sprung up all over the country.
Source: Report of the International Council of Women, Assembled by the National Woman Suffrage Association, Washington, D.C., U.S. of America, March 25 to April 1, 1888, (Washington, DC: Rufus H. Darby), 1888, pp. 159-161.