Lowell, Massachusetts & Randolph, North Carolina
In the eighteenth and for most of the nineteenth century, women’s labor primarily consisted of domestic labor with the home representing the center of production. This was also true because of the primarily agricultural nature of the United States during these centuries. During the nineteenth century, the rise of capitalism dramatically changed this scenario because with the rise of capitalism also came the rise of mercantilism, industrialization, and a cash-based economy. Also during this economic revolution came another shift. The domestic unit would less and less represent the center of production as the public workplace did more and more. This separation had a major impact on women. Their domestic work began to be devalued, and, since men primarily had control of the public workplace it also increased their economic dependence on men. Further, the rise of a family-wage economy as opposed to a family-based economy also transformed the family and women’s roles within it.
Another separation that existed in the period from 1830-1860 was the primarily agrarian economy of the south (cotton and other crops) as opposed to the increasingly industrial nature of the north (textiles and other manufacturing). Thus, many working class women who assumed public work in the north were employed by textile mills, while those who labored in the south found themselves in occupations such as share-cropping, domestic employment outside the home, shopkeepers, and landlords. Women in both regions also continued to be employed as teachers. This analysis will look at life for working women in two locations, Lowell, Massachusetts, in the north, and Randolph County, North Carolina, in the south. The different work and social conditions experienced by women in these regions will be compared and contrasted.
During the mid-19th century, cotton production in the south was booming. The high...