Women’s Labor


  • Industrialization in the early 1800s began drawing white Northeastern women out of the home and into the factory and schoolhouse. Particularly notable were the women who worked at the Lowell Mills in Massachusetts.
  • While many women worked for wages, others remained at home and professionalized the job of homemaker as part of the nineteenth-century cult of domesticity.
  • African American women in the South remained enslaved during this period. Native American women dealt with work problems as the Indian Removal Act and Manifest Destiny policies pushed them farther west.

The Lowell girls

American businessman Francis Cabot Lowell reformed the manufacturing industry by hiring women and creating a centralized workplace. Lowell built several mills and hired individual workers. Young white women had fewer job options than men, but they did have experience working with textiles, and they could be easily managed and restricted while living and working on factory grounds.

Lowell’s mills established strict rules governing the lives of these young workers. The women lived in boarding houses and worked a 12-hour day. They were not allowed to talk as they worked, nor could they swear or drink alcohol. They were required to attend church.

Women’s work experience

The Lowell Mills girls had many restrictions and rough working conditions: long work hours, few breaks only at designated times, and penalties for arriving late.

The work was also dangerous. Fires were common because the cotton bales were easily ignited. Many workers injured their hands or other body parts on the machinery. Injured workers died from their injuries or were fired with no compensation.

Overseers who managed the workers sometimes beat them, and children working in the factory were sometimes beaten to death.

Women workers and the labor movement

The more independent-minded female workers enjoyed receiving their own wages and living apart from their families. They could use their wages to buy clothing and other goods for themselves. A sense of solidarity arose among the workers.

The workers soon organized to protest their harsh working conditions inadequate pay. In the 1830s, the women working in Lowell Mills formed associations to organize strike activities to protest wage cuts and the 12-hour workday. They published newspaper detailing their working conditions. The women became politically active, using strikes as a form of labor protest.

Homemakers and schoolteachers

Many white women still stayed at home and developed the concept of a housewife. The idea that women held power by controlling the household was known as the cult of domesticity.

Catharine Beecher, an early feminist, promoted women as educators. Women could teach young children the way of the world. The teaching profession shifted to women’s work. Women were able to use their power in the home, factory, and schools to gain public attention for the first women’s rights movement.

Minority women’s work in the era of slavery and Indian Removal

African American women in the South remained enslaved during this period, and were afforded none of the benefits of the cult of domesticity or independent labor. Native American women coped with increasingly precarious labor as Indian Removal and Manifest Destiny continued to push them farther west.

Source: Women’s Labor
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