HM - June 2017 - Backstory: New England Mill Girls
New England Mill Girls
The BackStory production, “Women At Work,” offers commentary on a number of interesting topics on that subject. One topic briefly alluded to is the life of young women doing factory work in the antebellum period. The brief reference suggests that sexual harassment was widespread. No evidence or further information is offered. A discerning listener will note that the purpose of this podcast is to discuss sexual harassment and the options available to female workers, not a description of the life of mill girls. But this podcast does provide an opportunity to engage students in a discussion of continuity and change in history. It also provides a starting point for engaging students in a broader understanding of this topic.
In this lesson, a number of documents are analyzed to help students develop this broader understanding. Through these, students can experience factory work as experienced by young women of the time and develop historical empathy rather than looking only through the lens of the present. In reading these documents, students will be asked to distinguish between fact and opinion, or as phrased in History’s Habits of Mind: Read critically, to discern differences between evidence and assertion. They will also be asked to pose questions that foster informed discussion, develop a curiosity about the past, and develop skepticism about statements and assertions. Understanding the life of mill workers might seem inconsequential, but developing the habits and skills of distinguishing between fact and opinion, of questioning assertions, and of evaluating evidence are most certainly not inconsequential. This lesson is a vehicle for teaching these habits and skills.
Step 1: Listen to the “Under the Law” segment on BackStory: Women At Work
In this segment, students will learn that in the first half of the nineteenth century, young, unmarried white women made up about 20% of the work force, and Nina Earnest and Lea VanderVelde discuss sexual harassment of women in the work place. Earnest describes sexual harassment as “all over the place in the 19th century.” She explains that “economic necessity forced their families to send them out into the world . . . .” and that “Men were naturally lecherous, women were not.” Earnest incorporates the findings of VanderVelde, historian from the University of Iowa, who says the relationship between workers and their employers was that of master and servant. . . . A working woman’s ability to work. . . was basically owned by her employer.” The segment addresses changes in attitude and law
resulting in the right of women in the present to sue in court for sexual harassment.
Step 2: After students have listened to the podcast, discuss:
• What image do you have of young women in the work force in the early 19th century?
• Would you have agreed to become employed in one of the many textile factories in New England in the early 1800s?
• To what extent does this podcast give you an overall picture of the early nineteenth century workplace?
• Girls as young as ten were employed in these factories. As a parent, would you have allowed this?
• What more do we need to know to better understand 19th century mill workers?
Step 3: Have students read and analyze the documents referenced below and complete Handout 1. You may chose to have students work singly, in pairs or in small groups.
Source 1: “The Characteristics of the Early Factory Girls” by Harriet Robinson. An edited version is provided. Read a more complete version here or here. Students can access Lucy Larcom’s “A New England Girlhood” here or they can read the biographical information provided in Source 2 and then read pages 153-157 of her book, found online here.
“General Appearance of Mill Workers,” from American Notes by Charles Dickens, available here.
Source 3, Source 4, Source 5: “Observations of Lowell Mill Girls – 1845 - 1846"
Step 4: Have individuals or groups present their findings as recorded on the graphic organizer.
Step 5: Discuss the Documents
• How are these accounts of life in the mills different?
• How are these accounts the same?
• There is no evidence in these documents of sexual harassment. What evidence to the contrary do you find?
• How could you explain the lack of evidence indicating sexual harassment in the early-nineteenth-century workplace?
Step 6: Who to Believe?
Three of these documents are written by girls at the time they were working, i.e. “first-hand testimony.” One is written at the time by a male, European observer. Two are written by women many years later remembering their years in the
mills. Which might be more believable?
Consider what we are coming to know about eye-witness testimony. Is it always accurate?
For new developments in this area, checkout the web sites below.
Eyewitness Testimony 1
Eyewitness Testimony 2
Eyewitness Testimony 3
• Do the three mill workers writing in 1845 & 1846 appear to “have an agenda”?
• What sentences give you the impression that they have real grievances?
• What sentences give you the impression that they are merely disgruntled employees?
• Are employees who are happy as likely to write about them to editors as employees who are unhappy?
• What information provided by Harriet Robinson, many years later, might lead you to believe that the working conditions were worsening?
• How might Dickens’s observations as an adult male differ from the reality experiences by the young women workers?
• What effect would his experiences with industrialization in Europe have on his observations in America?
• Both Robinson and Larcom did well in their adult life. How might this suggest that their experiences as mill girls were as positive as they remember?
• How does reflecting on events in the past affect our memory of them?
• What advantages can there be letting some time pass before assessing situations?
Step 7: Discuss with students:
• How has your understanding of the life of mill girls in the early nineteenth century changed from the beginning of this lesson to now?
• What are the limitations of understanding the past?
Step 8: Take Away: You can live successfully without knowing about this topic. However, this lesson provides some life skills that can be very valuable. Create two “Tweets,” each stating a life-lesson learned through this activity. Hand in as you leave.