In vain do I try to soar in fancy and imagination above the dull reality around me, but beyond the roof of the factory I cannot rise. -- anonymous "mill girl" in 1826
The Lowell Female Labor Reform Association
was founded in 1844 by the mill girls
of Lowell, Massachusetts
and headed by Sarah Bagley
. The association was one of the first American labor organizations
organized by and for women.
In the 1800's the textile mills of Lowell employed many unmarried young women from the surrounding countryside. Families cautiously allowed their daughters to work a few years before marriage, but the working conditions were difficult and few girls stayed long. The average mill girl stayed at her job for just three years.
Sarah Bagley became the first President of the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association. Bagley even testified about the working conditions in the mills before the Massachusetts legislature. In the end, however, the LFLRA was unable to bargain with the mill owners; so they joined with the New England Workingmen's Association. Despite this lack of effect, the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association was the first organization of working women in the United States to try to bargain collectively for better working conditions and higher pay.
By the 1850s an economic downturn led the factories to lower wages, lengthen the work day, and eliminate some of the amenities. Soon, Irish immigrant women replaced the American farm girls on the factory floor.