BARBARA HOWARD: The “Me Too” movement is taking off, with women from many walks of life coming forward with their stories of sexual harassment in the workplace, but this is nothing new. It's been going on for centuries — literally. Young women left the farm to work in the mills of Lowell and Lawrence during the Industrial Revolution, overseen by factory bosses — mostly men. Pretty much all men. Robert Forrant is a history professor at UMass Lowell who studies labor and industry. Thanks for joining us, Professor Forrant.
ROBERT FORRANT: My pleasure.
BARBARA HOWARD: So how old were these girls?
ROBERT FORRANT: So most of the people that would have been the earliest workers coming into Lowell would have been anywhere from probably 14 to 15 to late teens, early 20s. That would have been the target that recruiters would have gone into the countryside to look for to bring to Lowell.
BARBARA HOWARD: So they were very young. Just how prevalent was sexual harassment in the Lowell and Lawrence Mills?
ROBERT FORRANT: The Voice of Industry, which was a young women's and all-workers newspaper in the city, wrote all the time. And there's one quote I can read now, it says “It may be," wrote one woman, "that most women are so dwarfed and weakened that they believe that dressing, cooking and loving make up the whole of life. You boast of the protection you afford to women. Protection from what? From the rude and disorderly of your own sex? Reform men, and women will no longer need the protection you make such a parade of giving."
BARBARA HOWARD: So they don't out and out talk anatomically about what happened to them, but in broad strokes they paint a pretty clear picture, it sounds like. The mills offered housing for these girls to rent, where men were not allowed. Was that giving a false sense of security for the parents who allowed their daughters to leave the farm and go work in the mills?
ROBERT FORRANT: False sense of security, yes, because on the job they could be, and they were, harassed by supervisors. Men would walk up behind them in the shop, rub up against them, do the kind of thing one could imagine. And women needed this work, and so there was always the threat of being fired. There was no union, no protections, and so if you didn't behave the way the boss wanted you to behave, that was a possibility. So lots of times, older women workers, workers who were maybe older in the sense of, like, 20, would take 14 and 15 year -olds under their wing and watch out for them and make sure that they weren't harassed, cornered in the stairwell or something like that.
BARBARA HOWARD: Well what happened if the sexual harassment extended to a woman or young girl getting pregnant? What happened to them then?
ROBERT FORRANT: If she was pregnant she could be ostracized, removed from the boarding house that she was living in ... and go home. She could go home, but she might face the same ostracism in her own community in terms of being pregnant without being married. It took a while before people began to actually try to figure out ... who the aggressor was, who the culprit was, and what the power relationships were between young women in the mills and the mill overseers.
BARBARA HOWARD: These young girls — their parents, I imagine, back on the farm, were depending on remittances sent back to the farm.
ROBERT FORRANT: This was really part of the story, because most of the young women who come to the city of Lowell are sending money back to help pay for the farm. They may be paying so their brother can go to school, health problems at home, whatever it might be, and so the money is extremely important and that does put young women in the mills at risk. They don't want to lose their job, and so it puts them in a distinct compromised position.
BARBARA HOWARD: Were there any mill owners who took a stand against this kind of behavior?
ROBERT FORRANT: There's no record that mill owners cared a heck of a lot about what happened day to day as long as they got the cloth out the back door of the factory and made their money.
BARBARA HOWARD: What finally brought it to an end?
ROBERT FORRANT: I don't think it ever was brought to an end. The way I see the history of women workers and women workers organizing, it’s across the 19th and 20th century. You can find, you know, similar complaints in textile factories, clothing factories on the Lower East Side of New York. Wherever you look, it's a constant oppression that young women have to deal with and only infrequently do labor institutions take up the cause and try to do something about the conditions. So it's left up to young women and it doesn't go away.
BARBARA HOWARD: And it's still going on today.
ROBERT FORRANT: You can look at the global textile industry and find cases of young women in China, in textile mills or whatever, facing the same sorts of oppressions that young women would have faced in Lowell in 1840.
You can read first-hand accounts of harassment in the workplace during the Industrial Revolution from The Voice of Industry here.