The Industrial Revolution was a major turning point in history and changed the way of life for everyone. One major change was a shift in the roles of women. For the first time, a large number of women began to work jobs outside of the home. This newfound independence gave rise to other changes including the women's rights movement.
Women Mill Workers (1910) by Lewis Wickes Hine
Lowell Mill Girls
One of the first factories in the United States to begin hiring women was the textile mills in Lowell, Massachusetts. By the 1840s, around seventy-five percent of the workforce at Lowell mills were women. These women became known as "Mill Girls" or "Lowell Girls."
Getting Away from the Farm
Most of the "Mill Girls" were the daughters of farmers in the northeast. They took the opportunity to get away from the farm and make some money of their own. Sometimes girls took the jobs to help out their family or to save money for a future family.
The women lived in large boarding houses with hundreds of other women. There were lots of rules that the girls had to live by. They typically shared a room with several other women, had to attend church on Sundays, and no men were allowed in the boarding houses.
Lower Wages and Poor Working Conditions
One reason that the factory owners liked to hire women was because they could pay them less. At the time, women made around half of what men made for doing the same job. It may sound strange now, but back then people thought that men should make more money because they provided for the family, while the money women made was considered "extra" money.
A Young Girl Working by Lewis Wickes Hine
Working conditions in the factories were not great. The women worked long hours from early morning to late at night. They often worked over 70 hours a week. The factory rooms were crowed and very loud. Although the women did much of the work, the supervisors were generally all men.
The Civil War took place during the latter part of the Industrial Revolution. With so many men gone to war or killed in battle, new jobs were opened up to women and even more women entered the work force.
Besides working in textile factories, women began to work all sorts of jobs including jobs as teachers, office clerks, nurses, and seamstresses.
Women's Rights Movement
As women began to work together in large groups, they gained a sense of community. They joined the labor movement to improve working conditions and fought for the abolition of slavery. They also began to fight for women's rights. Leaders such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton formed groups to push for women's right to vote during the Industrial Revolution. It took a long time and a lot of work, but women finally gained the right to vote when the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920.
Interesting Facts about Women During the Industrial Revolution
The Lowell women had their own monthly publication where they contributed articles, poems, and stories.
Dorothea Dix recruited thousands of women to become nurses during the Civil War.
The first women's rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848.
When the Lowell factory tried to raise the rent at the boarding houses in 1836, the Lowell women went on strike. The factory eventually gave in and lowered the rent.
Typical wages in the mid-1800s for a woman working at a mill was between $3.00 and $3.50 a week.