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Book “Women at Work”: The Formation of Female Networks


History has been primarily written by men and about men, but for the last centuries, women have played a notable role in promoting their rights and place in the economy of the country. This fact explains the omnipresence of plentiful events associated with women activity. Dublin’s (1979) book Women at work can be considered as a work of historical importance. The reason is that Dublin (1979) relied on quantitative methods to conduct his study. Women at work provides an utterly different perspective on why women actively started participating in economic activities. It was conventionally believed that women had to provide for their families. However, Dublin (1979) established that women that came to Lowell for work pursued individualistic goals which later converted into collective effort, and quantitative data that the author provides is sufficient to support this claim, thus I agree with it.

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As the title of the book suggests, Women at work focuses on motivations and activities of women that worked in Lowell cotton mills in the 1830s. Dublin (1979) conducts a thorough statistical analysis using company payroll records and federal census data. By establishing family linkages of women working in the cotton mills, Dublin wanted to discover what motivated those women to come to Lowell. Historians generally believe that women pursued financial benefits to sustain their families (Loomis, 2018). Dublin (1979) contradicts this opinion by providing evidence that families of those women were not in need of additional income. Although women came to Lowell to pursue their individualistic aspirations, they did not lose ties with their families. The book depicts that the majority of women came to Lowell with the assistance of their relatives or family members. This tendency contributed to the formation of kin networks.

The book also explores how women from families with agricultural backgrounds started inclining toward urbanization and participation in political campaigns, such as labor movements. Dublin (1979) provides statistical evidence that shows that women frequently married men from mechanic occupations. Women at work briefly describes how the notion of solidarity among women contributed to the formation of female networks within the working class. Previously, the concept of networks was only present in the middle class. This shift contributed to the participation of women in labor activities in Lowell. At least one successful Lowell strike can be linked to the advance of female networks.


Exploring a sample may often provide results that can be generalized to the whole population. Dublin’s (1979) work, despite being focused on women of Lowell cotton mills, can be used to explain the shift of women’s attitudes toward the cult of domesticity and political passiveness. The fact that Women at work is rich with quantitative data makes the book interesting for social historians. Besides providing raw data, the author draws several conclusions that depict the subtlety and complexity of the development of women’s history. For instance, Dublin (1979) describes the role of ethnic diversity at work in discouraging women’s participation in labor activities.


In the early days of American history, women were primarily responsible only for domestic roles. Women had “a respected place in the family economy” but household activities “placed a severe limit on their independence” (Dublin, 1979, p. 4) However, between 1830 and 1860, the predominant portion of women sought employment outside of their households. This claim is supported by Dublin’s (1979) statistical evidence, which shows that only 10 percent of women working in Lowell cotton mills were living with their families. The rest of the female workers stayed at company boarding houses. Their families were in favorable economic conditions, which supports the author’s argument that women were mainly motivated by their individualistic goals. Their aspirations, however, were not isolated from one another, but instead were strongly interconnected. The fact that the majority of female workers stayed at boarding houses contributed significantly to the formation of female communities. In such a physical environment, where the first half of the day is spent at the machinery and the free time is spent together at the boarding house, the exchange of ideas and goals led to the emergence of the community of operatives. This environment facilitated collective political and labor activities among women.

Newcomers were rarely on their own and often were invited by their relatives or family members working in the mills. Dublin (1979) describes newcomers as strong-willed, motivated, and unusual. They had their own way of speaking and were not willing to conform to the expectations of a broader community (Cott & Boydson, 2016). This description of girls that came to work in Lowell cotton mills reinforces the claim that they were driven by individualistic goals. Harriet Robinson, who worked in such a mill starting from 1835, gives a similar account of Lowell women in her autobiography.

Robinson pursued education and self-development and managed to go to a public school and occasionally took private lessons. She also participated in church activities and was interested in poetry (Robinson, 2011). Her poems were often published in the local magazine called The Lowell Offering. Robinson (2011) is the example of a woman that sought self-establishment besides financial opportunities. A mix of individualistic characters led to the emergence of collective effort, which was aimed at battling inequality in the workplace and unfavorable working conditions. This shift toward cooperation is discussed by Dublin (1979) in his book. The author tells that newcomers were forced to conform to certain norms, including speech and dress, and moral conduct. Female workers collectively threatened the company management that they would leave the mill if a woman deviated from the rules and housekeepers did not take any actions. These events can be labeled as the beginning of women’s collective effort toward more favorable conditions at work.

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The emergence of a strong female community manifested itself in early labor protests. Wage cuts that took place in 1834 were not welcomed by the female workers, and the women took part in public demonstrations (Loomis, 2018). Women “contributed to the growth of an organized labor movement in New England” (Dublin, 1979, p. 6). Local newspapers specifically emphasized the presence of woman leadership in protests – the first protests were led by 386 women and only three men (Dublin, 1979). This tendency continued throughout the 1940s – more than 70% of the Ten-Hour Movement supporters were women (Kindell, 2018). Therefore, it can be concluded that women used work opportunities not merely to earn money, but primarily to promote their individualistic and collective goals.


Dublin’s work plays a significant role in providing an accurate account of events that took place from 1830 to 1860. Unlike many historians that rely on secondary sources, Dublin’s work is based on sound statistical evidence. The results of the author’s study suggest that women coming to Lowell were not driven only by financial incentives. Instead, the female workers their individualistic goals, and the collective living environment led to the emergence of common goals and efforts.


Cott, N. F., & Boydson, J. (Eds.). (2016). Root of bitterness: Documents of the social history of American women. Northeastern University Press.

Dublin, T. (1979). Women at work: The transformation of work and community in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1826-1860. Columbia University Press.

Kindell, A. (2018). The world of antebellum America: A daily life encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO.

Loomis, E. (2018). A history of America in ten strikes. The New Press.

Robinson, H. J. H. (2011). Loom and spindle, or life among the early mill girls. Applewood Books.

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