Sarah Bagley, a power loom operator in one of the first factories in the country, was a member of a group of young, New England women who formed the first female industrial workforce in American history. Beginning in the early 19th century, with the dawn of industrialization, and continuing through the present, women of all classes, races, and ethnicities have increasingly joined the paid labor force in a wide variety of services, trades, and professions. As Bagley’s speech on behalf of the Lowell Labor Reform Association indicates, women have been concerned with improving their rights as workers since their initial entry into the labor force.
The “violation of woman’s sphere” that Bagley addresses had to do with the emerging 19th century idea that women’s lives should be centered within the home as wives and mothers. Only men had a place in the public world of work, activism, and politics. By working in the Lowell mills, and by speaking out against the exploitation of female workers at Lowell, Bagley was challenging those views of womanhood. Between 1800 and 1945, women’s varied experiences in the labor force and in labor organizations have tended to challenge dominant definitions of femininity. At the same time, however, these gender definitions--both the emerging 19th century view of womanhood as well as much older traditions of women’s role in the family economy-- have been the main driving force shaping the workforce opportunities open to women. Gender definitions have also determined the demographics of women workers and the development and success of women in organized labor movements. In addition, class, race, and ethnicity have greatly affected working women’s experiences.
This exhibit examines the development of women’s participation in the paid labor force during three major periods: the Industrial Revolution (1800 to 1880), the long Progressive era (1880 to 1930), and the Depression/World War II (1930 to 1945).