The Role of Women in the Industrial Revolution | Tsongas Industrial History Center (2023)

Lowell and the American Industrial Revolution

The first half of the 19th century was a time of great change. Industrialization brought new opportunities for employment, changing ideas of work, and economic cycles of boom and bust. During this period, women's roles changed dramatically. Industrialization redefined the role of women in the home, at the same time opening new opportunities for them as industrial wage earners.

(Video) The Industrial Revolution (18-19th Century)

Pre-Industrial America and Women's Worth

In pre-industrial America, the household was the center of production. Most families lived on farms where everyone worked to produce goods in order to survive. Within this context, the status of men and women was relatively equal. Men were the heads of households, but the role of women as caretakers and producers of goods, such as food and clothing, was equally important. With the first stages of industrialization, these patterns changed.

Increasingly, men began working outside of the home. Rather than selling goods they had produced, these workers sold their time to factory owners, who, in turn, sold the mass-produced goods. Men dominated this new realm of work. They made money - not goods - to provide for the family. Material success – how much money one could make and what they could buy with it – became a measure of a person's worth.

Industrial Capitalism and the Changing Role of Women

Women were not paid for work in the home. With the availability of manufactured goods, a woman’s role as producer within the home was reduced. The household, and the women who made it a home, took on new meaning. The new role of women was to transform the home into a haven for the men who faced daily pressures and dangers in the work place.

At the same time, women were morally responsible for raising dutiful children, preferably sons. By the mid-19th century, popular media depicted the “True Woman” as one who could competently manage a household, tend to the needs of husband and children, and create a pleasant and morally pure environment.

Farming in the Age of Factories

As the popularity of factory work grew, many questioned the wisdom of moving away from the land. Those who remained in agriculture were forced to concentrate on livestock or cash crops that could be sold to national markets. By the 1840s, cash crops from farms west of Albany dominated the market. Small New England farms were devastated. Large families, failed crops, and little cash income threatened family stability. Such factors may have influenced many women’s decisions to go to Lowell. Their departure meant one fewer mouth to feed, and the potential of supporting the family with cash wages.

Lowell, Massachusetts: The Experiment on the Merrimack

The idea of a city like Lowell began with a wealthy Boston merchant, Francis Cabot Lowell. In 1812, Lowell returned from England with the design for a power loom firmly etched in his mind. A year later, he and mechanic Paul Moody built a working power loom. These looms wove cotton threads into cloth, creating a marketplace of machine-produced goods and offering consumers the ease of purchasing something that had previously been a time-consuming, by-hand process.

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Lowell envisioned an entire community involved in textile production. With the help of a group of investors, he built a textile mill on the Charles River in Waltham, Massachusetts. By 1817, the factory was an economic success, and the investors began looking to expand beyond the limited power of the Charles River. Lowell died that year, but his colleagues forged ahead. They found the ideal site at the Pawtucket Falls, where the Merrimack River drops more than 30 feet.

In 1821, the investors purchased farmland around the falls, and the first mills opened in 1823. During the next 25 years, they built additional mills and an intricate system of canals that supplied water power to the mills. By 1843, Lowell was the largest industrial center in the United States.

Women at Work: Lowell's Early Labor

The city’s investors hired corporate recruiters to enlist young women from rural New England to work in the mills. Their reasoning was two-fold:

  1. women were apt to stay in the city only a few years before leaving to become wives and mothers, thus preventing the establishment of a permanent working class; and
  2. women were less expensive and more easily controlled than men.

Every woman had her own reasons for seeking factory work. Life was very difficult on a subsistence farm in New England – large families resulting in minimal (if any) inheritances, failing crops from unpredictable weather, and young men leaving in search of a better life (reducing marriage prospects).

One can only imagine how these “country girls” felt as they made their way into the city. In that instant, they saw what the majority of people in their hometown had never seen: massive brick factories; rows of streets lined with shops, taverns, and boardinghouses; crowds of well-dressed young people; and a mind-altering noise of the mills.

Life in the City of Spindles

By 1843, nearly 30,000 women had left farms to work in the city's ten major textile companies. In Lowell, women could earn money, and take advantage of the city's cultural offerings. Many women lived in boardinghouses owned and managed by the corporations. Though crowded, these quarters created an atmosphere in which women could share experiences and forge bonds of solidarity.

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Despite the new opportunities offered in Lowell, women's lives were carefully controlled. The ringing of bells replaced the sun and seasons as signals for daily tasks. Company rules regulated workers' lives, both at work and afterhours: curfew was at 10 PM, church attendance was mandatory, and any sign of improper behavior was grounds for dismissal.

In addition to long hours of factory work, women faced societal expectations to maintain a standard of behavior dictated by popular literature, religion, and the lifestyles of urban middle-class women. The peer pressure must have been tremendous. The income from their jobs gave women economic power they never had before. Stores around the city catered to the women’s desires, selling pre-made clothing, cloth by the yard, hats, shoes, jewelry, and more.

The End of the Golden Experiment

Though Lowell remained attractive to young women in 1843, the city's "golden era" was all but over. Lowell's early success spawned competition: investors saw the potential for huge profits, and new industrial cities sprang up along the country's waterways. Textile prices fell. To keep their earnings high, mill owners cut labor costs: workers were required to tend more machines, and the speed of the machines was increased.

Worker went deaf due to the noise of machinery. Whirring gears and rapidly spinning belts went uncovered by protective devices. Accidents were frequent. Worst of all, mills were unventilated. Many workers were stricken with brown lung disease, a life threatening illness caused by breathing in cotton dust.

Women's Response to Deteriorating Working Conditions

Exhausted by rigorous work schedules and disenchanted with the indifference of corporations toward their well-being, many operatives organized to improve working conditions. In 1844, ten years after the first strike in Lowell, hundreds of women united to form the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association. Thousands of workers signed petitions urging the state legislature to pass a law limiting the length of the workday to ten hours.

Obstacles to Successful Protest

Though they protested working conditions in the 1840s, women lacked the rights, recognition, and experience they needed to organize effectively. They could not vote, own or inherit property, keep any wages they earned, or hold any but the lowest paying jobs. More importantly, women were socialized to believe that their proper place was in the home. It was not their place to question men’s decisions in public.

(Video) women from 19th century industrial revolution historical documentary about the people

For those who were interested in organizing for better working conditions, the inconsistent workforce weakened worker solidarity and stalled their attempts. In addition, women's lack of political voice limited their ability to influence politicians. In fact, not until 1874 did Massachusetts legislators move to restrict the length of the workday.

Following the Industrial Experience

Many of Lowell’s female works saw their jobs in the mills as a temporarily experience that would broaden their horizons and allow them to save money for marriage and motherhood. Those who achieved this ideal faced marriage and divorce laws that gave all rights to men. Married women had no legal existence.

Many women, discouraged by the failure of managers to improve working conditions and increase wages, left the factories for new occupations, returned to the farm, moved west, or married. Other women remained in factories where, in time, they became a recognized force of workers.

It appears that those who left the factories used their urban experiences to enhance their quality of life. According to Thomas Dublin, a female operative typically married later in life than her non-wage-earning counterpart, had fewer children, and married a man closer to her age. Women who remained single often used skills acquired through factory life to start their own businesses. Those who moved west often did so in search of a better life than either farm or factory offered.

A Legacy of Enduring Relevance

Even as industrialization opened new opportunities for some women, it worked to confine others to a more narrowly defined role within the home. In cities such as Lowell, women were in a unique environment in which to recognize both life's possibilities, and the social, economic, and political forces that defined and shaped their existence. Women's visibility as wage earners during the early Industrial Revolution was precedent setting, and has enduring relevance to our lives today.

1Dublin, Thomas. Women at Work: The Transformation of Work and Life in Lowell, 1826-1860. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.

(Video) Life as a factory worker during the Industrial Revolution


What was the role of women in the Industrial Revolution? ›

Women in the working class, worked during the Industrial Revolution with lower wages than men and often times started working as children. Women during this time also had to be the caretaker of the house, so they might have worked all day and night to keep up their daily routine.

What was the role of women as industrial? ›

As well as the long hours and physical demands of factory labour, the domestic roles traditionally viewed as women's work continued – unpaid. Tasks such as cooking, cleaning and childcare still needed to be carried out. Perhaps unsurprisingly, few employers were understanding.

What was the role of middle class women during the Industrial Revolution? ›

Women of the middle class had a very different experience with industrialization. They did not work in factories, but they also did not have complete freedom and equality with men. Middle class women often had to stay home, conduct household duties, and focus on raising children.

What happened to women in the Industrial Revolution? ›

Between 1830 and 1860, women remained a key labor force for this growing industry. Mill superintendents paid recruiters to circulate through northern New England and to bring suitable young women to work in their mills.

What are 3 roles of women leading up to the revolution? ›

Most women carried on with their daily tasks at home, but many took action by boycotting British goods or following their men into war -- as cooks, nurses, and care-givers.

How did women fight for change during the Industrial Revolution? ›

One way that they fought for (and in some instances achieved) change was through labor unions. Labor unions helped women organize into larger groups, articulate their problems and ideas, and provide protection from the industrial elite.

What were women's rights during the Industrial Revolution? ›

Women's Rights Movement

Leaders such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton formed groups to push for women's right to vote during the Industrial Revolution. It took a long time and a lot of work, but women finally gained the right to vote when the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920.

When did women first work in factories? ›

In the early 20th century, factory work was considered a man's job and few women were employed in the field. Once World War 1 began, this started to change. There was a significant increase in the number of women employed in factories and these women filled in a number of roles.

When were women first allowed to work? ›

The National Service Act 1941 (no 2) made the conscription of women into the workplace legal. At first, only single women in their twenties were called up, but within two years almost 90%of single women and 80% of married women were employed in essential work for the war effort.

What was the main role of women during the Middle Ages? ›

The vast majority of people in the Middle Ages worked the land, and women were just as active as men in agricultural activities. But we do know of women who were also writers, artists, and active as tradespeople in a family business.

What did middle class women do? ›

The majority of upper and most middle class women did not undertake paid work except for 'respectable' activities like being a governess or a music teacher or even a nurse. Most women of this class were expected just to get married and look after their children and home.

How many women worked in the Industrial Revolution? ›

Table One
Occupational CategoryMales (thousands)Percent Female
Food, Drink, Lodging34813.2
Total Occupied654530.2
Total Unoccupied106083.3
18 more rows

How did the revolution affect women's rights? ›

Nineteenth- and twentieth-century suffragists appealed to the ideals of the Revolution in their struggle to secure the vote for women, culminating in the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.

What was one of the negative effects of the Industrial Revolution on women? ›

Discrimination Against Women

The Industrial Revolution helped establish patterns of gender inequality in the workplace that lasted in the eras that followed.

What were women's roles in history? ›

Throughout history, women have been healers and caretakers, playing multiple roles as pharmacists, nurses, midwives, abortionists, counselors, physicians, and 'wise women,' as well as witches. As early as 4000 BC, there were women who studied, taught, and practiced medicine.

How did women's role change after the revolution? ›

The Revolution broke down traditional barriers and changed perceptions of the proper female role in society as women increasingly declared their interest in public affairs.

Did women have a revolution important points? ›

The revolution carried out by the women of France triggered the international suffrage movement, for the next two centuries. As a result of this movement, in 1946, the women of France won the right to exercise their franchise and equal wages.

What were the problems faced by women in Industrial Revolution period? ›

The factory owners preferred female and child workers since they could pay them less. Workers including children, during this time, had to work for long hours for very less pay. Moreover, women were not provided with any facilities and children were employed in dangerous mines.

How much did women earn in the Industrial Revolution? ›

Employers commonly paid women one-half to two-thirds of what a man doing the same job received. The wages were pitiful. In 1850, a woman garment worker in a Cleveland factory earned 104 dollars per year.

What were rules for women working in factory? ›

Section 66(1)(b) of the Factories Act, 1948 states that no woman shall be required or allowed to work in any factory except between the hours of 6 a.m. and 7 p.m.

Why did women begin working? ›

Several factors contributed to this rise. First, with the advent of mass high school education, graduation rates rose substantially. At the same time, new technologies contributed to an increased demand for clerical workers, and these jobs were increasingly taken on by women.

What were women not allowed to do? ›

Women were not allowed to vote. Women had to submit to laws when they had no voice in their formation. Married women had no property rights. Husbands had legal power over and responsibility for their wives to the extent that they could imprison or beat them with impunity.

What were three jobs that women often held? ›

Cleaning roles, teaching, clerical support and food preparation are also dominated by female workers – to the tune of at least 60%. Meanwhile, traditionally more risky occupations such as the military, plant machine operators and building work are occupations overwhelmingly held by men.

Who fought for women's right to work? ›

Led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a young mother from upstate New York, and the Quaker abolitionist Lucretia Mott, about 300 people—most of whom were women—attended the Seneca Falls Convention to outline a direction for the women's rights movement.

How women were treated in the Middle Ages? ›

Throughout the Medieval period, women were viewed as second class citizens, and their needs always were an afterthought. They were either held to be completely deceitful, sexual, innocent, or incompetent.

How did the middle colonies treat women? ›

Women worked from sun up to sun down every day. Colonial women had few legal rights or freedom. They were expected to obey the man in their life whether it was their father, brother, or husband. Women were not allowed to vote or hold public office.

What were women's roles before? ›

Women traditionally ran the household, bore and reared the children, were nurses, mothers, wives, neighbours, friends, and teachers. During periods of war, women were drafted into the labor market to undertake work that had been traditionally restricted to men.

What jobs did female peasants have? ›

Peasant women had many domestic responsibilities, including caring for children, preparing food, and tending livestock. During the busiest times of the year, such as the harvest, women often joined their husbands in the field to bring in the crops.

When did women get rights? ›

Passed by Congress June 4, 1919, and ratified on August 18, 1920, the 19th amendment granted women the right to vote. The 19th amendment legally guarantees American women the right to vote. Achieving this milestone required a lengthy and difficult struggle—victory took decades of agitation and protest.

What was it like to be a woman in the 1800s? ›

Women did not have the power to make contracts, own property or vote. A woman was seen merely as a servant to her husband. By the 1830s and 1840s, however, that began to change when many bold, outspoken women championed social reforms of prisons, war, alcohol and slavery.

Why did employers first hire women? ›

equal political rights. Why did employers first hire women? A. There were not enough men to fill all the low-paying white-collar jobs.

Why were women paid less than men during the Industrial Revolution? ›

Joyce Burnette argues that productivity differences between the genders can be explained by two key factors. Most important, men's greater strength gave them a productivity advantage over women in manual labor, which resulted in men receiving higher wages for their greater productivity.

How did the women's movement impact society? ›

The feminist movement has effected change in Western society, including women's suffrage; greater access to education; more equitable pay with men; the right to initiate divorce proceedings; the right of women to make individual decisions regarding pregnancy (including access to contraceptives and abortion); and the ...

How did the women's movement affect society? ›

Voting ensures women's reproductive and economic progress. The 19th Amendment helped millions of women move closer to equality in all aspects of American life. Women advocated for job opportunities, fairer wages, education, sex education, and birth control.

How successful was the women's rights movement? ›

The women's movement was most successful in pushing for gender equality in workplaces and universities. The passage of Title IX in 1972 forbade sex discrimination in any educational program that received federal financial assistance. The amendment had a dramatic affect on leveling the playing field in girl's athletics.

What were 3 major effects of the Industrial Revolution? ›

The Industrial Revolution had many positive effects. Among those was an increase in wealth, the production of goods, and the standard of living. People had access to healthier diets, better housing, and cheaper goods. In addition, education increased during the Industrial Revolution.

Why were women and children forced to work during the Industrial Revolution? ›

The Industrial Revolution saw the rise of factories and mines in need of workers. Children were ideal employees because they could be paid less, were often of smaller size so could attend to tasks in tight spaces and were less likely to organize and strike against their pitiable working conditions.

How did Industrialisation change the lives of women in cities? ›

Women of all classes began working in factories. It helped them in getting financial independence and self-esteem. But their wages for the same hour of work were low in comparison to those of men. Industrialization was a blessing in disguise.

What did females do in female factories? ›

The women produced spun wool and flax in all the factories. In the main factories other work was undertaken such as sewing, stocking knitting and straw plaiting. Hard labour included rock breaking and oakum picking.

What role did women play in the Industrial Revolution quizlet? ›

- Many worked in textile factories, as seamstresses, and sometimes miners. - Most jobs were filled by the working class who wanted a better quality of life. - Women earned less than half of what men earned.

What roles did women play in the Industrial Revolution and how were they and their families affected by it quizlet? ›

Working-class women formed a majority of the workers in the textile industries and in domestic service, they also needed to keep homes and raise children. With industrialization came a "cult of domesticity" to justify removing middle-class women from contact with the business world.

How were female industrial workers treated differently? ›

In factories, women routinely faced discrimination. Employers commonly paid women one-half to two-thirds of what a man doing the same job received. The wages were pitiful. In 1850, a woman garment worker in a Cleveland factory earned 104 dollars per year.

When did females start working? ›

Gradually, beginning after 1890 and very much into the 20th century, women had a growing place in the workforce. This path—declining from a high point in previous centuries, prior to the manufacturing economy, and then rising as the economy and society change over time—graphs as a U-shaped curve.

What was life like as a factory girl? ›

The women often worked for 12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week. And back then, there were no safety rules. Each factory floor was packed with up to 250 machines, with little space between them. “There were many cases in which girls got their dresses or hair caught up in the gears,” Emily Levine told Scholastic News.

What kind of women worked during the Industrial Revolution? ›

Outside of textiles, women were employed in potteries and paper factories, but not in dye or glass manufacture. Of the women who worked in factories, 16 percent were under age 13, 51 percent were between the ages of 13 and 20, and 33 percent were age 21 and over. On average, girls earned the same wages as boys.

What types of work did women perform before the Industrial Revolution? ›

What types of work did women perform before the industrial revolution? Household chores and help husband in the fields.

What did the Industrial Revolution do for women and children? ›

Lesson Summary. The Industrial Revolution was a major transitionary period throughout the world in which most production became mechanized. Because of this major boom in production, there was a need for cheap labor. This meant that both women and children entered the workforce, and they could be paid less than men.


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