Finding their Voice: The Factory Women’s “Turn-Out” of 1841
The legacy of Maine’s first textile industry strike
By Elizabeth DeWolfe, Ph.D.
In late March 1841, a rumor floated through Biddeford’s York Manufacturing Company. Samuel Batchelder, the company agent, was going to cut wages. Again. In the boarding houses, the female mill operatives discussed options. They decided on a bold course of action: a “turn-out,” and it was all the bolder for being the first textile industry strike in Maine. When these young women marched out of the mill, they took steps to freedoms that echo in protests today.
Biddeford was booming in the 1840s, with the young women at the York Manufacturing Company both contributing to and sharing in the city’s economic success. Women comprised 80 percent of the factory work force. Because the factories offered the best-paying occupations for women in this era, young women flocked to New England textile mills like York Manufacturing. In the early period, from the 1830s to 1855, the majority of these women were white, Protestant, and native-born, with their average age between 14 and 24 years old. They worked six days a week for cash wages and lived in company-owned boarding houses. After charges for room and board were deducted from their pay, women could pocket up to $1.50 or more per week, a good amount of money in the 1840s.
On Monday morning, March 29, nearly 500 women—half of the work force—marched through the streets of Biddeford and Saco. Their protest followed a pattern that previous strikes in New Hampshire and Massachusetts factories had established: a band played upbeat tunes, banners were unfurled, and the women proclaimed, “We scorn to be slaves!” An astounded bystander noted that these women had “greatly disturbed the quietude of our usually peaceful villages.” But others, including local men, left their work tasks and joined the textile operatives, as the York County Herald reported, in support of the cause of labor and the “weaker party . . . especially when the party is women.”
The procession ended with a rally at Saco’s Freewill Baptist Meeting House. Attendees (both men and women) made speeches, elected officers, and drew up a list of grievances.
First, the operatives resisted being forced to live in company housing. The quarters were cramped, ventilation was lacking, and the threat of contagious disease was always present. Even worse, the price for board kept rising. Young women wanted the freedom to make their own housing arrangements.
Second, the operatives pointed to a previous pay reduction that had come with the promise of a restoration of wages once conditions had improved. But no restoration had happened, and now an additional cut loomed.
Following two or three days of “fruitless negotiations,” the company agent Batchelder made a demand of his own: come back to work tomorrow, or don’t come back at all. Dorcas Harmon Nutter, who participated in the strike, in 1912 reminisced in the Biddeford Record: “A few went back but the majority of the young women proved loyal and went elsewhere for work . . . We had a just grievance. We did not win. The Corporation was too strong.”
She was right. The corporation was very powerful. Concerned about the public upset, a town committee of eleven leading men investigated the “unpleasant disturbance.” The York County Herald printed the committee’s lengthy report. Blame fell upon two allegedly disgruntled older women who, the committee concluded, had cajoled the less experienced workers into participating and had even designed a strategy, the committee sniffed, to maximize the size of the crowd. In fact, the committee took umbrage at the unseemly behavior of all the female participants, noting in their report: “that no grievance could justify proceedings so incompatible with the retiring delicacy of the female character. . . and so much at variance with the peace and good order of our villages.”
As for the grievances, four corporation-employed doctors assured a lack of epidemic disease. The committee members deemed recent wage cuts “inconsequential.” A sub-committee praised the boardinghouse keepers and the neat, clean, “amply sufficient” lodgings. In short, they found no fault with the York Manufacturing Company, blamed the incident on rumors and misunderstandings, and, worried that whiffs of unrest would scare away investors, concluded to let the factory handle its own affairs. The committee officially disapproved of the turn-out and planned to take steps to prevent future occurrences. They did express deep sympathy for those operatives who had lost their jobs and hoped that recent events had taught them “lessons of wisdom to guide future conduct.” The lesson seemed clear: mind your place.
The strike had failed. But taking the long view, we see glints of success.
The young women learned several important lessons. Their collective action brought the factory to a halt, at a considerable financial cost. In organizing meetings, women gained experience in crafting an agenda, making an argument, and advancing a demand.
And these women were brave. They marched on public display, held a public meeting, and spoke out when the cultural norm for women was dutiful submission in a life lived at home or in a company-owned boarding house.
The Biddeford turn-out was not an isolated incident. Women protested their work conditions in factories across New England, including Lewiston. In addition to economic and labor concerns born of rapid industrialization, these protests were part of a larger discussion of women’s ability to control and determine the conditions of their own lives. In 1848 women gathered in Seneca Falls, New York, for the first women’s rights convention where Elizabeth Cady Stanton crafted the Declaration of Sentiments. This key document included demands for the right of women to keep their own wages, pursue higher education, and enter the prestigious professions of law and medicine. It also argued that women should be able to divorce, to keep property that they brought into marriage, and, among other concerns, to have the right to vote.
As Maine labor historian Charles Scontras has noted, labor and suffrage were linked. Women’s rights activists Lucy Stone and Susan B. Anthony visited Maine in the 1850s. Maine author Elizabeth Oakes Smith spoke frequently on women’s issues, including to mill operatives in Lewiston. In 1858, the first petition for Maine Women’s Suffrage was put forth, which a Portland newspaper, the Eastern Argus, criticized as the “damnable heresy of this generation.”
The young women who “turned-out” were one link in a chain of women across the centuries who demanded to play a direct role in shaping their own lives. Those invested in maintaining a gendered status quo saw striking women as the source of social mayhem. Yet these young wage-earning women—experiencing a modicum of financial independence, enjoying geographic mobility, exploring a new-found sisterhood with like-minded women—were taking those first steps into the freedoms their brothers enjoyed as a matter of course. In this suffrage centennial year, we can draw a straight line from Maine’s Governor Mills back to the mill girls who spoke up and walked out.