Raymond Bechard is an Author, Producer and Human Rights Advocate. For over 25 years he has worked to provide justice, tolerance and equality to people around the world.View All Posts
History is slow. Very, very slow. Sometimes real change only happens after centuries of waiting, fighting, and suffering.
While certain issues – like sexual harassment – suddenly leap to the forefront of public discourse, demanding immediate action, a look back reveals a courageous history of women calling for an end to the systemic abuse of men in power.
At the height of the America’s Industrial Revolution, young women left their family farms to work in New England mills, overseen by factory bosses — mostly men. Girls as young as 14 to their early 20’s were targeted by recruiters who would go into the countryside seeking new female factory workers.
Once hired, female mill workers left their hometowns and moved into factory boarding houses in burgeoning industrial cities like Lowell, Massachusetts. They were paid wages ranging from $1.85 to $3.00 a week, the highest available to female employees anywhere in the country. While most of this money was sent back home to families still living and working on farms, this “high” wage scale was actually a huge savings for New England mill owners since male workers doing the same jobs cost owners twice as much. By employing 75% women in the mills, owners were able to achieve considerably lower overhead.
Nearly 200 years later, the only thing that’s changed is the percentage. Now, women make a bit more than half of what men make.
But unequal pay wasn’t the only disadvantage faced by these young women. Listen, and you’ll hear their voices calling out for an end to the sexual misconduct of men.
Beginning in 1845, the first female-led American labor struggle, the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association, was started by teenage girls working in the Lowell mills. It began with just twelve young women, growing to 500 members within just six months and expanding rapidly after that. The Association was run completely by the women themselves. They elected their own officers and held their own meetings. They helped organize the city’s female workers, and set up branches in other mill towns.
One of their central issues was sexual harassment and assault by supervisors, which left them humiliated, enraged and often pregnant.
The organization’s own publication, The Voice of the Industry, often featured articles focusing on the sexual abuse women suffered. “You boast of the protection you afford to women,” one woman wrote. “Protection! From what? From the rude and disorderly of your own sex? Reform them, and women will no longer need the protection you make such a parade of giving.”
In the August 27, 1847 issue of the Voice, another woman looked forward to a future when things would change, writing, “May the time soon come when females will have their proper station in society, when they will no longer be considered the plaything and slave of men. May they cease to follow every vain or foolish and expensive fashion; and that instead of being so very anxious about dress—what they shall put on, or how gaudy they can make themselves appear, may they turn their attention to the cultivation of their minds—to the acquirement of such useful knowledge, as will assist them in performing the duties incumbent upon them, with credit to themselves, and incalculable benefit to the rising generation. And above all may they detest the prudery, duplicity, insincerity and hypocrisy so much in vogue at the present day.”
While conditions for women have arguably improved, that “time” has not yet come.