Until the mid-eighteenth century, textile manufacturing was a laborious process dependent upon the skilled handwork of individual spinners, dyers, and weavers. Production took place in individual homes or artisan shops, allowing workers both male and female to follow a relatively independent work schedule compatible with the rhythms of family and farm life. The introduction of water-powered machinery, first for carding and spinning fibers, and then for weaving, changed all that. Not only were the machines expensive to build and maintain, but their operation was also only viable in locations that had water moving through at a sufficient rate to drive the machinery. Instead of the many different stages of work being done in many disparate locations, companies such as the Boston Associates led by Francis Cabot Lowell began combining all the stages of textile manufacturing into unified “mill systems” in the late 1810s, building enormous factories along rivers and other waterways and bringing in workers to staff them, creating company towns essentially overnight.
In the city of Lowell, Massachusetts (named after the Associates’ founder) the workforce consisted largely of young single women from the farming communities of northern New England. Most were between fifteen and twenty-five and signed on for short stints that rarely exceeded a year at a time; some went home after their first contract was up, but the majority of women averaged three years in the mills before moving on to other employment or marriage. Working conditions were harsh: the factory floors were crowded with machinery, hours were long, and relatively few safety measures existed. In 1836, the workers had had enough: they organized themselves into the Lowell Factory Girls Association, dedicated to providing the laborers some degree of power to negotiate through union.
Source: The Center for Lowell History at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.
Whereas we, the undersigned, residents of Lowell, moved by a love of honest industry and the expectation of a fair and liberal recompense, have left our homes, our relatives and youthful associates, and come hither, and subjected ourselves to all the danger and inconvenience, which necessarily attend young and unprotected females, when among strangers, and in a strange land; and however humble the condition of Factory Girls (as we are termed) may seem, we firmly and fearlessly (though we trust with a modesty becoming our sex) claim for ourselves that love of moral and intellectual culture, that admiration of, and desire to attain and preserve pure, elevated, and refined characters; a true reverence for the divine principle which bids us render to everyone his due; a due appreciation of those great and cardinal principles of our government, of justice and humanity, which enjoins on us “to live and let live”—that chivalrous and honorable feeling, which with equal force, forbids us to invade others’ rights, or suffer others, upon any consideration, to invade ours; and at the same time, that utter abhorrence and detestation of whatever is mean, sordid, dishonorable, or unjust—all of which can alone, in our estimation, entitle us to be called the daughters of freemen, or of republican America.
And, whereas, we believe that those who have preceded us have been, we know that ourselves are, and that our successors are liable to be, assailed in various ways by the wicked and unprincipled, and cheated out of just, legal, and constitutional dues by ungenerous, illiberal, and avaricious capitalists—and convinced that “union is power,” and that as the unprincipled consult and advise, that they may the more easily decoy and seduce—and the capitalists that they may the more effectually defraud—we (being the weaker) claim it to be our undeniable right to associate and concentrate our power, that we may the more successfully repel their equally base and iniquitous aggressions.
And, whereas, impressed with this belief, and conscious that our cause is a common one, and our conditions similar, we feel it our imperative duty to stand by each other through weal and woe; to administer to each other’s wants, to prevent each other’s backsliding—to comfort each other in sickness and advise each other in health, to incite each other to the love and attainment of those excellences, which can alone constitute the perfection of the female character—unsullied virtue, refined tastes, and cultivated intellects—and in a word, do all that in us lies, to make each other worthy [of] ourselves, our country and Creator.
Therefore, for the better attainment of those objects, we associate ourselves together, and mutually pledge to each other, a female’s irrefragable vow, to stand by, abide by, and be governed by the following
Article 1st. It shall be denominated the LOWELL FACTORY GIRLS’ ASSOCIATION.
Art. 2d. Any female of good moral character, and who works in any one of the mills in this city, may become a member of this Association by subscribing to this Constitution.
Art. 3d. The officers of the Association shall be, a President, Vice President, a Recording Secretary, a Corresponding Secretary, a Treasurer, a Collector, and a Prudential Committee, two of whom shall be elected from each corporation in this city.
Art. 4th. The officers shall be chosen by the vote of the Association; that is, by the vote of a majority of the members present.
Art. 5th. The duties of the President, Vice President, Secretaries, Treasurer, and Collector shall be the same as usually appertain to such offices. The duties of the Prudential Committee shall be to watch over the interests of the Association generally; to recommend to the Association, for their consideration and adoption, such by-laws, and measures as in their opinion the well-being of the Association may require: and also to ascertain the necessities of any of its members, and report the same, as soon as may be, to the Association. And whenever, in the opinion of the Committee, there are necessities so urgent as to require immediate relief, they shall forthwith report the same to the President, who shall immediately draw upon the Treasurer for the sum recommended, and which sum the Committee shall forthwith apply to the relief of the necessitous.
Art. 6th. The Treasurer and Collector shall be subject to the supervision of the Prudential Committee, to whom they shall be accountable, and to whom they shall give such security for the faithful discharge of their duties as the Committee shall require.
Art. 7th. All moneys shall be raised by vote of a majority of the Association, or of the members present, and shall be assessed equally on all the members.
Art. 8th. All the officers shall hold their office for the term of one year, with the privilege of resigning, and subject to be removed by vote of the Association, for good cause.
Art. 9th. The Association shall meet once in three months, and may be convened oftener, if occasion require, by the President, upon a petition of twenty of the members first petitioning her for that purpose.
Art. 10th. It shall forever be the policy of the members of this Association, to bestow their patronage, so far as is practicable, upon such persons as befriend, but never upon such as oppose our cause.
Art. 11th. The Association shall have power to make all necessary by-laws, which shall be consistent with these provisions, and such by-laws, when made, shall be binding upon all the members.
Art. 12th. Any member may dissolve her connection with the Association by giving two weeks’ notice to the Recording Secretary; and any members shall be expelled from the Association by a vote of a majority of the members present, for any immoral conduct or behavior unbecoming respectable and virtuous females.
Art. 13th. This Constitution may be altered or amended at any time by a vote of two-thirds of the members present.