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Marcy B. Freedman
Cause & Effect: From the Industrial Revolution to Womens Liberation
Photography, mixed media

Dimensions variable
Lauren and Riley, 462 Main Street, Beacon, NY

Windows on Main Street

Cause & Effect: From the Industrial Revolution to Women’s Liberation

It is obvious that the Industrial Revolution dramatically changed the way we live in the United States of America.  Stop and look around you.  Do you see anything that is not the result of a manufacturing process?  Oh, sure, there may be an oil painting on your wall or you may be wearing a sweater that was crocheted by your grandmother, but generally speaking, we use the products of industry  at home and at work  constantly, and almost, exclusively.

In this essay, I wish to discuss some consequences of the Industrial Revolution that are not as obvious.  I will focus upon issues that are significant in the history of women.  Specifically, I will demonstrate the link between the Industrial Revolution and the two waves of feminism that have altered the way women live, work, and think about themselves in this country.

Prior to the introduction of manufacturing, life in the United States was largely rural and agricultural.  In farming families, there were working roles for everyone, including the women and children.  Thus, a woman defined herself in terms of her domestic and maternal responsibilities, and her well-being was based upon her situation at home on the farm.  For the most part, she did not concern herself with matters outside of this realm.

Things changed when industrial technologies took root in the United States. Various considerations led women to seek factory jobs. Many young women were compelled to work in order to assist their families, financially.  Often, their earnings enabled the male members of their families to seek an education.  Alternately, a young woman might be saving money for her own future marriage.  Finally, some women worked in the factories in order to be economically self-sufficient.  In all cases, these working women achieved a level of independence that had not been possible in their previous circumstances.

By the middle of the 19th century, there were mills all over New England, and three-quarters of the employees were women.  Factory owners were anxious to hire women, because they were paid much less than men.  However, there were unexpected consequences of this unfair policy: women began to organize and stand up for themselves!  For example, here’s what happened in Lowell, Massachusetts.  In 1834 and again in 1836, the so-called Lowell Mill Girls banded together to protest dangerous working conditions, long hours, and wage cuts.  Their motto was "Union is Power." After several meetings and demonstrations in the streets, they finally resorted to "turn-outs" or strikes.

Unfortunately, the industrialists were strong enough to withstand the strikes, and the women went back to work.  However, an irreversible trend had been set in motion: women felt emboldened to take responsibility for their lives and for the causes in which they believed.  They were now poised to make a difference in society, becoming active in a wide range of reform movements.

Indeed, there were several important issues that occupied the minds of progressive women in the first half of the 19th century: the abolition of slavery, opposition to the war with Mexico, prison reform, and women’s rights.  Eventually, certain women realized that their ability to be effective in all of these causes was dependent upon one key element: they needed the right to vote! 

Thus, in 1848 in Seneca Falls, NY at the first convention for women’s rights, a resolution was passed in favor of women’s suffrage.  During this First Wave of Feminism, women such as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, and others used a variety of tactics in their campaign for a constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote.  As the decades passed, brave suffragists endured humiliation and imprisonment for their actions.  In 1917, approximately 200 women were arrested for picketing the White House.  While in prison, some of these women engaged in a hunger strike which led to brutal force-feedings.  These unfortunate occurrences brought much public attention to the issue of enfranchisement for women.  Finally, in 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment was passed, guaranteeing the right to vote to all citizens, regardless of gender.

After this major accomplishment, women were less engaged with fighting for their rights  until the 1960’s.  Then, once again, labor issues brought women together.  Like their 19th century forerunners, the feminists of the Women’s Liberation Movement (or Second Wave of Feminism) were unwilling to tolerate inequality in the workplace.  Betty Friedan and others launched NOW (National Organization for Women) with the goal of eliminating gender discrimination by lobbying Congress and working within the legal system.  More radical women, such as Gloria Steinem and Germaine Greer, had other goals and relied upon other methods.

Ultimately, the women’s movement tackled a great variety of issues, including reproductive rights, domestic violence, rape, sexual harassment, sexism in the media, roles in marriage, child care and more.  Additionally, many of these women were also active in the civil rights movement, feeling a bond with people of color who were oppressed by America’s political, social and economic institutions. 

Given the breadth of its goals, it is impossible to state that the Second Wave of Feminism was a complete success.  A backlash in the 1980’s prevented the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, and women of today still face certain challenges due to their gender.  Nevertheless, it can be asserted that the Women’s Libbers of the sixties and seventies  like the Lowell Mill Girls and the Suffragists  accomplished a great deal and demonstrated that women  especially when united  can be a powerful force for change in our society.

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Images on The Dress:

1.    Mary Livermore (1820 - 1905)

2.    Lucy Burns  (1879 - 1966)

3.    Marching for Women’s Liberation

4.    Betty Friedan  (1921 - 2006)

5.    Three Mill Girls

6.    Suffragists

7.    Susan B. Anthony  (1820 - 1906)

8.    Marching for Suffrage

9.    Matilda Joslyn  Gage  (1826 - 1898)

10.  Suffragists

11.  Marching for Suffrage

12.  Protesting Miss America Pageant, 1968

13.  Mabel Vernon (1883 - 1975)

14.  Gloria Steinem and Pamela Hughes, 1972

15.  Sojourner Truth  (died 1883)

16.  Women Workers in Cotton Mill

17.  Kate Millet (born 1934)

18.  Women Voting, 1920

19.  Elizabeth Cady Stanton  (1815 - 1902)

20.  Suffragists

21.  “Bobbin Girl” at Mill

22.  Two Mill Girls

23.  Alice Paul  (1885 - 1977)

24.  Women at Spinning Machines

25.  Lucy Stone  (1818 - 1883)

26.  Women Workers in Cotton Mill

27.  League of Women Voters, 1920

28.  March on Washington, 1963

29.  Frances Willard  (1839 - 1898)

30.  League of Women Voters, 1967

31.  Bella Abzug  (1920 - 1998)

32.  Women Factory Workers

33.  Marching for Women’s Liberation, 1970

34.  Women Workers in Cotton Mill

35.  Women Workers in Cigarette Factory

36.  Aileen Hernandez  (born 1926)

37.  Women Garment Workers on Strike, 1916

38.  Germaine Greer  (born 1939)

39.  Women Workers in Cotton Mill, 1908

40.  Alice Paul and other members of Women’s Suffrage Association

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