History of Women's Work in America's 19th Century
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History of Women's Work in America's 19th Century

Work possibilities for women in the early nineteenth century were limited. In Lowell, Massachusetts, textiles were a major industry and women took a major part.

Work possibilities for women in the early nineteenth century were limited. In Lowell, Massachusetts, textiles were a major industry and women took a major part. Women were performing the same household spinning and weaving as always, but had been moved into warehouses for mass production of goods. Their tasks at home were now being implemented on a large scale.

These warehouses and factories created mill societies, communities of workers who lived and worked in the same compound as their workplaces provided by the employer. The average age of a woman in a mill society was between fifteen and twenty-three years old. The living situation was similar to dormitories, though living conditions were often cramped and poorly accommodated. In some cases a woman’s bed was shared by another in alternating shifts. Though the extra income was a blessing for many homes, women were not being fairly compensated for their work and hours. The mill societies often worked women from five AM to 7 PM with very limited breaks. About three-quarters of the mill workers lived on cite.

Eventually women began to organize to advocate for changes in work conditions. The Lowell Female Labor Reform Associated was established to negotiate the day’s work hours and make other improvements in the work environment. This was the beginning of unionized labor. The association tried to gain publicity for their cause through a published document, called Voice of Industry. Some women developed injuries and other bodily harms like swelling feet from operating foot cranks while sewing for large amounts of time. Not all viewed the efforts of these women as a noble cause, especially the employers, who were concerned with the bottom line profit of the industry. Some employers created blacklists, which fired the women activists. These blacklisted workers would not be able to find work elsewhere because the lists were sent between manufacturers in nearby colonies. For those that retained their positions at that time, all was not free and clear. A large portion of the American workforce began to be replaced by immigrant workers in the late 1840’s. The women that remained working made between one-third to one-half of what men would make.

Besides labor disputes, other problems existed for women in the workplace. Much of the barrier to women entering the work force was sheer discrimination. So many people in colonial America genuinely believed women were inferior to men. In some places women were resented. It would have been extremely difficult to endure the oppression and limitations of that time period.

Other work opportunities for women during the nineteenth century included midwifery, selling cloths and home-made goods, and writing. Women also might find work in soup kitchens, tending houses, or at a Sunday school.

Women who were able to write began to make waves through the colonies in the nineteenth century. Writing became the first opportunity for a woman’s work to be appreciated on a large scale. Harriet Beecher remains one of the best known writers of this era for her book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Her work was a step that escalated tensions before the civil war. Many women writers of this time wrote pulp fiction, and women were quickly becoming a major part of American literary history.

Outside of paid labor were many opportunities for women to participate in social services and organizations. One of the few occasions women had to get out of the house was for church. Women began to participate in Bible studies and other church gatherings. Women also worked in libraries, which were expanding with the growing market of readers and writers.

I would say that although working conditions were not optimal for women at this time, the alternative of no work at all is a less favorable environment. Things were not perfect, but they had definitely improved since the origins of the colonies. Opportunities for women were headed in the right direction. Whatever work women were doing was better than doing nothing at all.


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