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17 Chapter 1 REPUBLICANISM,RELIGIOSITY,ANDTHE RHETORICOFWOMEN’SLABORREFORM INLOWELL,MASSACHUSETTS,1830–1850 Amy J. Wan Michel Chevalier, a French economics writer who visited the United States in 1834 to study American cities, wrote that the industrial city of Lowell, Massachusetts , “with its steeple-crowned factories, resembles a Spanish town with its convents; but with this difference, that in Lowell, you meet no rags nor Madonnas, and that the nuns of Lowell, instead of working sacred hearts, spin and weave cotton. Lowell is not amusing, but it is neat, decent, peaceable, and sage” (Chevalier 143). Comparing the quiet, orderly town’s “steeple-crowned factories” to Spanish convents was perhaps most apt because Lowell’s factories were filled with young, unmarried women doing the work, not of God, but of industry. In Chevalier’s idyllic vision, the women workers of Lowell did not inhabit the dirty industrial city of contemporary popular imagination but rather a “neat, decent, peaceable” place, providing living proof that industrialism did not have to destroy pastoral virtues. To many, the women of Lowell, the literate, moral, happy girls at the center of this industrialization success story, served as models of the good factory worker for the country and the rest of the industrializing world. Compared to images of dirty, polluted, and morally corrupt industrial cities such as London , widely circulated depictions of Lowell portrayed an ideal mill town with its orderly, virtuous, and literate factory girls proving the success of industrialized life. In part because of this view, Lowell has been seen as the quintessential textile mill town by both contemporaries and modern historians, a place to examine the burgeoning industrialization of the mid-nineteenth-century United States (Dublin, Women; Foner, Factory; Laurie; Murphy). The experiences of these “factory girls,” as women mill workers in New England were called in newspapers and popular books during the 1830s and 1840s, carry a romantic vision of early industrialization and female independence, tracking 18 Amy J. Wan their journey to Lowell from New England family farms and their work experiences as independent women in the early textile industry. Yet beneath the surface of this constructed image of the Lowell factory girl lie the seeds of early labor reform in the United States. The image of the contented woman worker was contested actively in early industrial labor struggles in the United States during the 1830s and 1840s. Rather than perpetuate the myth of orderly, quiet servitude in convent-like factories, the mill women who spoke out in favor of labor reform often refuted popular representations of their working conditions, depicting themselves as “fair daughters and noble sons of New England” toiling within “the prison walls of . . . noisy, healthdestroying and humanity-degrading mills” (“Voice,” 26 Dec., 2). These labor reformers challenged the good mill girl image as a strategy to argue for the importance of labor reform during this period of developing industrialism. In order to disrupt these bucolic depictions, women labor reformers cultivated questions about industry’s effect on their femininity, pointing to labor reform as a way to stem these threats. This chapter examines the rhetorical strategies deployed by the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association (LFLRA) in its efforts to fight for labor reform in the textile mills. An examination of the LFLRA’s rhetoric reveals a strategy of co-opting the language used to praise the women workers and connecting labor reform to the upholding of feminine-associated characteristics like piety and republican womanhood. These strategies build from direct responses to a number of common narratives that used the mill girls as evidence of the success of American industry. I argue that the labor rhetoric of the LFLRA demonstrated a careful acknowledgment of expectations for white women established during this period of growing industrialization, early republicanism, a waning rural economy, and rising evangelicalism. Women labor reformers used their role as society’s moral conscience, much as did their peers in other reform movements for suffrage, temperance, and antislavery. But they also combined it with a popular fear of industry’s debasing effect on femininity to make an argument about labor reform. They both spoke against and took advantage of paternalistic attitudes toward them, such as in questioning that the order and rules of factory life helped protect women, while in fact, such restrictions often degraded women’s working and living conditions. Established in January 1845, the LFLRA was one of the first labor organizations for women factory workers in the United States, founded in the wake of unsuccessful strikes in...


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