Proud to be a Mill Girl

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The Yankee mill girls did not vanish, of course. They became women. After leaving the mills, they married, worked, and traveled. Migration to cities and towns was already a noticeable trend in the United States, but the mill-girl migrations accelerated it. Most of the farmers’ daughters who came to the mills were reluctant to return to their family farms. Nor did they want to marry farmers. A majority of those whose lives can be traced settled in cities and towns after leaving the mills. Of those who married, more than half wed tradesmen, merchants, or other professionals.

Compared to most American women, mill girls and former mill girls had a tendency to speak up, often loudly. Earlier in the century, a few ministers had urged women to refrain from praying in mixed company. Now mill girls past and present were not only praying out loud but also delivering fiery speeches in town squares, denouncing their male elected leaders, standing up to employers, and leading business boycotts. In many cases, they had learned their assertiveness on the job. During the 1840s, Lowell’s workers had petitioned the Massachusetts legislature repeatedly for a law mandating a 10-hour workday. One 1846 petition was signed by more than 10,000 mill workers, 4,000 of them from Lowell. The petition was 130 feet long.

A diaspora of Yankee mill girls moved west, where many became schoolteachers. Western communities looked to cities such as Lowell as recruiting grounds for young teachers with good work habits. Many former mill girls entered female seminaries, the forerunners of the late 19th-century’s women’s colleges. A number became writers and journalists. Lucy Larcom became a popular writer and friend of Whittier and Longfellow. Her friend Harriet Robinson spoke frequently to abolitionist groups, later becoming an active campaigner for women’s suffrage. As an impatient 10-year-old, young Harriet had been the first on her floor to stride from her mill in the 1836 turnout; this habit of acting decisively and speaking her mind stayed with her. As for Sarah Bagley, she became the nation’s first female telegraph operator.

For many mill girls, the most life-changing aspect of their jobs was simply living and working closely with so many other independent young women. Their experience as self-supporting laborers imparted an enduring confidence. “I felt that I belonged to the world, that there was something for me to do in it,” wrote Lucy Larcom in 1889 about her mill-floor education a half-century before, “though I had not yet found out what. Something to do; it might be very little, but it would be my own work.”