When 400 young women walked out of the Cocheco Mills in Dover in 1828 to protest cuts in their already low wages, it was the first strike by women in the United States. While the strike – which the workers called a “turn out” – was unsuccessful, their action heralded a generation of organizing by “mill girls” in the growing industrial cities throughout the region.
Like other textile mills early in the Industrial Revolution in New England, the workforce at Cocheco was made up largely of young women, often referred to as “mill girls.” An 1822 employment ad published in a local paper said the company was looking for “smart, capable girls between 12 and 25 years of age to work in the factory to whom constant employment and good encouragement will be given.” If by “constant employment” they meant 12-hour days and 6-day weeks, the ad was on the mark. What they didn’t advertise were the conditions of labor. According to an article published by the New England Historical Society, “The girls worked with only one break from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. They breathed noxious fumes and worked with noisy, dangerous machinery that mangled fingers and limbs. Managers forbade the girls from talking to each other during the 11-hour day. They were paid in scrip and required to shop in the company store, which raised prices higher than other shops.”
Another historian writes, “The factory owners required the women to sign a work contract titled ‘Conditions on which help is hired by the Cocheco Manufacturing Company, Dover, New Hampshire,’ in which the women agreed to the rules of the company. These rules included the agreement to work for whatever wages the company saw fit to pay and proper deportment at all times.”
If factory managers, like those who managed apparel factories in the globalized economy of modern times, believed that young women would be compliant despite the conditions of their labor, they had another thing coming.
Living in company-owned and managed housing, girls chafed at their ill treatment, denial of educational opportunities, and the disrespect they suffered. When ownership of the Cocheco Manufacturing Company changed hands in 1828 and the new owners tried to restrict conversations, speed up production, and lower women’s wages by five cents a day (without lowering men’s wages), the “girls” decided they had had enough.
Roughly half of the young women left their looms, walked out of the factory, and formed a procession that stretched for half a mile with the accompaniment of a marching band. A local newspaper, siding with the mill owners, reported, “The whole presented one of the most disgusting scenes ever witnessed.” Threatened with being replaced, most of the women went back to their jobs, possibly with the ban on talking lifted. Other protests against toxic air quality in the factory followed.
Six years later, cuts in wages at mills throughout the region prompted another walkout. Meeting at the local courthouse, the workers adopted a resolution stating they would not work for such low wages. “We view with feelings of indignation the attempt made to throw upon us, who are least able to bear it, the effect of this ‘pressure’ by reducing our wages, while those of our overseers and Agent are continued to them at their former high rate. That we think of our wage already low enough, when the peculiar circumstances of our situation are considered; that we are many of us far from our homes, parents, and friends, and it is only by strict economy and untiring industry that any of us have been able to lay up anything,” they agreed. Decrying the fortunes being amassed by mill owners from their exploited labor, they resolved, “We will neither be cajoled by flattery nor intimidated by threats.”
This job action, too, was probably unsuccessful in the short term. But within a decade, women were organizing for the ten-hour day at mills throughout New England.
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