The Daring Ladies of Lowell

In her new novel, 'The Dressmaker' author Kate Alcott explores the ramifications of the murder of a Lowell mill girl.

The Daring Ladies of Lowell, by Kate Alcott, Knopf Doubleday, 304 pp.

Laboring for 13 hours a day in dangerous working conditions doesn’t sound like freedom today  – it sounds like a lawsuit. But in 1830s Massachusetts, factory jobs offered young women something they’d almost never had access to before: financial independence.

The Daring Ladies of Lowell steps inside the factory floor of one of the cotton mills. “The Dressmaker,” the story of a seamstress who survived the sinking of the Titanic, was the first novel attributed to Kate Alcott, the pen name of Patricia O’Brien. O’Brien had previously written five novels, including “Harriet and Isabella,” about “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” author Harriet Beecher Stowe and her estranged sister, Isabella Beecher Hooker.

As with both of those novels, Alcott uses a real-life event as her starting point – in this case, the murder of a mill girl whose case shocked the town.

Rather than marry a man she doesn’t love, Alice Barrow comes to Lowell in 1832 to help her father pay off a debt. (He isn't exactly grateful.) There, she discovers the camaraderie of the dormitories, the joy of buying a hat with her own money, and the intellectual possibilities of the New England town. The monthly periodical, The Lowell Offering, will publish the women’s poetry, stories, and essays under their own names and the Lyceum brings lecturers, including President Andrew Jackson, from all over the US to speak.

Alice also learns the risks: The female workers, all of whom have to be young and unmarried, must keep their hair tied up or risk having it caught in the machinery – which could drag them to their deaths. The cotton fibers clog the air workers’ breath – causing them to cough up cotton balls and eventually shredding their lungs – but opening a window is a firing offense. And going to the doctor is dangerous if you want to keep your job.

“You know they don’t want sick girls here; it makes them look bad,” Sarah’s best friend, Lovey, tells her. "We’re supposed to be the young, healthy workers of modern industry, remember?”

After the thrill of her first paycheck wears off, Alice realizes that working conditions are getting worse, not better, and that, despite the grueling work, the women are being paid less than the men.

“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. But before Lovey can finish, her body is found hanging on a nearby farm.

At first, her death is dismissed as a suicide, but several clues make Alice and the other girls determined to get justice for Lovey. Alice enlists the help of the mill owner’s son, Samuel Fiske. (It doesn’t hurt that the owners are afraid their source of cheap labor will dry up if they can’t protect their workers.)

Alcott includes a romance, which serves the plot in terms of getting Alice a wider hearing than a “mill girl” presumably otherwise would have had, but it mostly feels tacked on. But when the novel stays focused on its “daring ladies,” it’s a compelling read.

Francis Cabot Lowell may have brought back the blueprints of a new industry from England in his prodigious memory, but it was the mill girls who helped power the Industrial Revolution. It’s good to see them get a book of their own.

Yvonne Zipp is the Monitor fiction critic.

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