Mighty Mill Girls

The Daring Ladies of Lowell: A Novel, Kate Alcott (Doubleday)

My love for historical fiction focused on the labor movement began with Denise Giardina’s Storming Heaven. Since reading that novel (almost twenty-five years ago now!), my bookstore radar has led me to other novels treating similar themes. The newest such novel I’ve encountered is Kate Alcott’s The Daring Ladies of Lowell, and it’s a lovely addition to the genre.

You may or may not be familiar with the Lowell textile mills. As a quilter with a love of reproduction textiles (fabrics based on swatches from different historical periods), I know about the Lowell girls and the textiles they produced. Henry Cabot Lowell was a U.S. “entrepreneur” who visited British textile mills, memorized their layouts and the construction of their machinery, then returned to the U.S. with a head full of trade secrets and went into business for himself. The first U.S. textile mill was built in 1823 and more followed quickly, with most of them located alongside New England rivers that provided the power that ran machinery.

Early on, these Mills began hiring female employees. They became an important source of employment for young women who wanted to leave the demands of farm life and who dreamed of a more independence than had heretofore been possible. Still, the opportunities the mills provided came at a price—the labor was demanding, with thirteen-hour work days, dangerous equipment, and pay that was half what the men working for the mills earned. Mill girls lived in dormitories and had their behavior closely monitored by employers who worried about the public reputations of “their” girls. Any perceived “loose” behavior was grounds for immediate firing.

The Daring Ladies of Lowell is set in such a mill and one of its main plot lines focuses on the murder of a mill girl that’s based on incompletely documented press reports from the time. Alcott has used the historical information available, filling out the story with her own imagination. This is a work of fiction, but it reads true.

Two other key plot lines focus on the burgeoning labor movement and a problematic romance between a son of the mill owner and one of the mill girls. These different themes are interwoven effectively. Much to my relief, this novel never degenerated into romance, which I feared it might. Not that I have anything against romance—but I do object to the way it often operates in deus ex machina fashion to deliver individual women from the injustices of their time, while glossing over the lives of the many other women in similar straits, who don’t catch the eye of the wealthy landowner or the earl or the industrial baron or whomever.

This novel makes for engaging reading as we share the lives of these young women and watch their autonomy and courage increase as they’re granted the opportunity to be self-supporting. It’s worth reading both for historical context and narrative. It won’t teach you as much as a larger non-fiction work on the same topic and, despite the author’s best efforts, may minimize some of the challenges the mill girls faced, but it brings the era to life in a way that will move you to further reading, both fiction and non-fiction.

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