“The Daring Ladies of Lowell” by Kate Alcott is a novel about young mill women of the 1830s. The British method of weaving machine-made fabric had recently been brought to the United States, and capitalists were rapidly building textile mills all over New England.
The author combines history and fiction about life in the factories, the coming push of workers’ rights, marches and class in the 19th century.
In 1832, Alice Barrows leaves her family farm in New Hampshire and gets a job at a textile mill in Lowell, Mass. She is eager to take the opportunity to earn her own money, achieve independence and meet new friends among the other young women flocking to Lowell’s mills. One person she meets and becomes close with is Sarah “Lovey” Cornell.
Alice becomes disillusioned by the local factory’s harsh working conditions and struggles to advocate for fellow workers and their list of grievances. The mill’s young women had to be decent, hardworking and free of scandal because the mill owners did not want to have public opinion turning on them. It was the first time women in large numbers were being employed outside the home. Working in the textile mills was a pathway to new freedoms, camaraderie and a livable wage. They worked as spinners, warpers, weavers, drawers and dressers.
“They don’t take us seriously. All we are to anybody are ‘the mill girls’ and I think that should change. Why can’t we be daring ladies?” Lovey asks as she works on a bill of rights she calls “A Mill Girl Manifesto.” An eight-hour work day and equal pay for equal work are two of her more radical ideas.
At the same time, the Methodist movement in New England was gaining momentum. This religion was more progressive in its attitudes toward slavery and women’s role in the church. Lovey Cornell was intrigued with this movement. The ministers preached that anyone could find salvation, even the poor. At that time it was charisma and zeal that made a successful Methodist minister, not schooling.
Soon after, Lovey was discovered hanged in a farmyard. The autopsy revealed that she was four months pregnant. At first people assumed “Lovey” had committed suicide but the rope around her neck was tied in such a manner that she could not have hanged herself. In a note left behind, she implicated the local Methodist minister. The author carefully researched an actual murder that happened in 1832 and the subsequent trial in 1833. The trial was the talk of New England for months.
This was a transitional time in American history, and the author writes accurately about the historical aspects that called attention to the treatment of workers, especially women, and the attitude of the upper class toward working women, as well as the social dynamics of a mill town. The novel is also about love and enduring friendships.