Harriet Hanson Robinson
|Harriet Hanson Robinson|
Harriet Hanson in 1843
|Born||Harriet Jane Hanson
February 8, 1825
|Died||December 22, 1911
|Known for||Loom and Spindle: Life Among the Early Mill Girls|
Harriet Jane Hanson Robinson (February 8, 1825 – December 22, 1911), who worked as a bobbin doffer in a Massachusetts cotton mill as a child, was involved in a worker's strike, became a poet and author and played an important role in the women's suffrage movement in the United States.
Harriet was the daughter of Harriet Browne Hanson and William Hanson, a carpenter. Both parents were descended from early English settlers, but without distinguished ancestors. Her elder brother was John Wesley Hanson (1823–1901),[a] and she had two surviving younger brothers, Benjamin and William. Harriet's father died when she was six, leaving his widow to support four young children.
Harriet's mother was determined to keep her family together, despite the difficulty in doing so. Harriet later recalled, in her autobiography Loom and Spindle (Hanson Robinson 1898), her mother's response when a neighbour offered to adopt Harriet so that her mother had one less mouth to feed: "No; while I have one meal of victuals a day, I will not part with my children." She later wrote that her mother's words on that occasion stuck with her "because of the word 'victuals'" whose meaning she wondered about for a long time thereafter.
Initially, Mrs. Hanson ran a small store in Boston, Massachusetts, which sold food, candy, and firewood. The family lived in the back room of the shop, all sharing one bed "two at the foot and three at the head" as Harriet was later to recall. At the invitation of Harriet's maternal aunt, Angeline Cudworth, also a widow, the family moved to Lowell, Massachusetts, a center of the textile industry. Lowell was a planned factory town. Under the Lowell System, the company recruited young farm girls to work in the mills, building dormitories where they could live at low rents, and hiring matrons to monitor the social conduct of the girls. The company arranged for cultural events, bible studies and other educational opportunities. Initially, the pay was appealing to the women, as the alternative employment, domestic work and teaching, paid only about one-sixth as much as the mills However, working conditions were often poor and unsafe and wages low, leading to a strike in 1834. Mrs. Hanson obtained a job running a boarding house for a textile mill company in Lowell.
At the age of ten, Harriet started to work in the Lowell mills. By her own account, she wanted to work so she could earn money for herself, and the experience was good for her. However, there may have been an element of necessity since her mother earned little money from running the boarding house. Her job, which paid $2 per week, was as a "doffer", replacing full bobbins with empty ones. The job took only a quarter of each hour, and during the free periods the children could play or read or even go home for a while.
In 1836, the Lowell Mill Girls organized their second strike, or "turn out" as they called them. The first strike had been in 1834 over a 15% cut in wages. This second strike was over an increase in board charges that was equivalent to a 12.5% cut in wages. To Harriet, aged eleven, it was her first strike. In her autobiography, she recounted it with pride:
When the day came on which the girls were to turn out, those in the upper rooms started first, and so many of them left that our mill was at once shut down. Then, when the girls in my room stood irresolute, uncertain what to do, asking each other, "Would you?" or "Shall we turn out?" and not one of them having the courage to lead off, I, who began to think they would not go out, after all their talk, became impatient, and started on ahead, saying, with childish bravado, "I don’t care what you do, I am going to turn out, whether any one else does or not"; and I marched out, and was followed by the others.
Harriet was harming her own mother by striking, since her mother would have benefited from the increase in boarding charges. Harriet was not to realize this until she was older. As a consequence of the strike, several of the mills reversed the increase in charges, and the boarding system was reviewed, on the grounds that — it being the principal inducement for young women and girls to come and work at the mills in the first place — if they were so dissatisfied with it as to strike then it was not having its desired effect. But the strike leaders were fired from their jobs, as was Harriet's mother, which Harriet depicted in her autobiography as an act of petty revenge for Harriet's own actions.
Harriet continued to work in the mills after the strike was over, graduating to tending a spinning frame and then becoming a "drawing-in girl", one of the better jobs in the mill. The drawing room was relatively quiet, away from the spinning and weaving machinery. The drawing-in girl took over after the warp threads had been wound onto the take-up beam, and drew each thread through the harness and reeds using a long metal hook. She could sit on a stool or a chair as she worked. Once this was complete, the beam would be delivered to the weaving room. The pay was on a piecework basis, so Harriet could work at her own pace, and during periods when the looms were operating could find a quiet room away from the machinery where she could read.
Harriet obtained an elementary education before starting work in the mill. While working as a doffer, she also attended evening classes. At the age of fifteen she left the mills for two years to study French, Latin and English grammar and composition at Lowell High School, studying in a wooden school room in a building that had a butcher's shop on the ground floor. The titles of two of her compositions have survived: "Poverty Not Disgraceful" and "Indolence and Industry", reflecting her opinion that there was nothing wrong with the honest labor of poor people. Harriet returned to the mills, working there until 1848, but in her spare time participated in literary groups in Lowell.
Lowell was rich in educational and cultural opportunities for women at that time. There were libraries and bookstores, evening schools and lectures, concerts and balls. Two of the first magazines written by women were published in the town, the Lowell Offering and The New England Offering. Betsey Guppy Chamberlain (1797–1886), one of Harriet's companions in the mills, became a noted contributor of sketches and stories to the Lowell Offering. Harriet said that "the fame of The Lowell Offering caused the mill girls to be considered very desirable for wives; and that young men came from near and far to pick and choose for themselves, and generally with good success." Harriet also wrote and published poetry, and it was through this that she met her future husband William Robinson, who was working as an editor at the Lowell Journal, which published some of her work.
Harriet married William Stevens Robinson (1818–1876) on Thanksgiving Day of 1848, when she was twenty-three. Also from a poor background, Robinson was a writer for a newspaper and a supporter of the Free Soil Party, which opposed the expansion of slavery into the western territories. This made it hard for him to keep a job. During the early years of her marriage, Harriet was not interested in women's rights. In her early writings she described the pleasure of having a husband to handle worldly problems, while her job was to take care of him, and said that for this reason she did not want to vote. Harriet later adopted the women's rights cause after her husband had taken it up. The couple were to have four children, one of whom died young, and also looked after Harriet's mother. Often they struggled to make ends meet.
In 1858 the couple moved to Malden, a new residential suburb five miles from Boston, buying a house two blocks from the railway station. This was to be Harriet's home for the rest of her life. At first, Robinson struggled to earn a living as a journalist. They had a large garden where they grew fruit and vegetables, and made some money by raising chickens and selling the eggs. After the Civil War, for eleven years from 1862 Robinson held a well-paying job as clerk of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. In 1868 Harriet joined the American Woman's Suffrage Organization led by Lucy Stone, and founded the Malden women's club. Robinson was forced out of his job by the politician Benjamin Butler, and in 1876 died after a long illness.
Contributions in Later Years
As a widow, Harriet Robinson rented out rooms to support herself, her three daughters and her aged mother. She wrote several books, including a biography of her husband, and became increasingly active in the women's suffrage movement. Harriet's book Loom and Spindle (1898) portrayed the industrial town of Lowell in her childhood and youth as a time of great opportunity for mill girls, who learned the discipline of labor and gained broader ideas about the world from their experiences. The book continues to be read more than one hundred years after it was published.
Harriet and her daughter Harriet Lucy Robinson Shattuck organized the National Woman Suffrage Association of Massachusetts, associated with Susan B. Anthony's organization, and Harriet Robinson made the opening address at the 1881 Boston Convention of the organization. They also helped Julia Ward Howe to organize the New England Women's Club. Harriet Robinson corresponded extensively with the suffrage movement leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. When the National Woman Suffrage Association opened on 26 May 1881 at the Tremont Temple in Boston, Harriet Robinson welcomed the delegates and guests. At this session she offered the following resolution: "Whereas, We believe that it is not safe to trust the great question of woman's political rights solely to the legislature, or to the voters of the state, therefore Resolved, That it is the duty of the women of Massachusetts to organize an active work, to secure a sixteenth amendment to the United States Constitution." Harriet Robinson wrote enthusiastically in 1881,
"Never, in the history of civilization, has woman held the political, legal or social position that she does in Massachusetts today! New avenues of employment for her capacity are constantly being opened, and in every department of public trust to which she has been promoted, she has shown her ability. In this first hour of woman's triumph, it only remains for her to keep what she has gained and use faithfully the new privileges which have come into her life... Trained leaders are needed—women strong of purpose, who are willing to confront the public as presiding officers, or as public speakers, and to guide wisely the large masses of their sex who have not yet learned to think for themselves..."
Harriet never took a theoretical position on women's rights, and may have been largely motivated by an ambition to advance in society, which the movement offered. However, she became a formidable advocate of suffrage in her writings and as a public speaker. The poet Lucy Larcom, a friend of Harriet who had also worked in the mills as a child, wrote of her, "Mrs. Robinson is deeply interested in all the movements, which tend to the advancement of women, and uses her pen and her voice freely in their behalf. She was the first woman to speak before the Select Committee on Woman Suffrage in Congress, and has spoken for the cause before the legislature of her own State, where she is not only a citizen, but a vote as far as the law allows."
Additionally, Harriet contributed to the fourteenth annual report of the Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics of Labor (published in 1883).The following is an excerpt from this annual report, written by Harriet Robinson:
"They [the mill girls] went forth from their Alma Mater, the Lowell Factory, carrying with them the independence, the self-reliance taught in that hard school, and they have done their little part towards performing the useful labor of life. Into whatever vocation they entered they have made practical use of the habits of industry and perseverance learned during those early years. Skilled labor teaches something not to be found in books or in colleges. Their early experience developed their characters...and helped them to fight well the battle of life."
Harriet lived to the age of eighty-six, dying at home in Malden on 22 December 1911.
Although she published several books, Harriet Robinson did not make money from her writings, which she published at her own expense.
- Hanson Robinson, Harriet (1877). "Warrington" pen-portraits: a collection of personal and political reminiscences from 1848 to 1876, from the writings of William S. Robinson.
- Hanson Robinson, Harriet (1881). Massachusetts in the woman suffrage movement. A general, political, legal and legislative history from 1774, to 1881.
- Hanson Robinson, Harriet (1883). Early Factory Labor in New England.
- Hanson Robinson, Harriet (1887). Captain Mary Miller: A Drama.
- Hanson Robinson, Harriet (1889). The New Pandora: A Drama.
- Hanson Robinson, Harriet (1898). Loom and Spindle, or Life Among the Early Mill Girls.
- In anthologies
- Davis, David Brion (1979). Antebellum American Culture: An Interpretive Anthology. Penn State University Press. pp. 121–123. ISBN 9780271016467.
- Hanson Robinson, Harriet (1999). "Names and Noms de Plume of the Writers in The Lowell Offering (1902)". In Ranta, Judith A. Women and Children of the Mills: An Anotated Guide to Nineteenth-Century American Textile Factory Literature. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. p. 299.
- John Wesley Hanson was to become prominent in the Universalism movement and author of several books on the subject.
- Claudia Lauper Bushman observes that Harriet's account of the strike she experienced when she was a child grew in the telling over the years. Although it didn't differ in the facts, the story that Harriet told in her fifties of the same incident was less embellished than the account given in her later autobiography, and also less embellished than when she related it at the International Council of Women in Washington D.C. in 1888, impressing at least one newspaper reporter who interviewed her at the time. Bushman comments that, through her linking the incident, in her autobiography, to the cause of women's suffrage that she didn't actually take up until much older, Harriet effectively wrote herself a place in history, where she has become credited as a pioneer and leader at an early age in the women's suffage movement. However, Harriet's room was just one of over 200 such mill rooms — there being nearly two thousand strikers in all — in many of which girls and women who would have taken similar action in the face of indecisiveness; and, even by Harriet's own account, this act of "childish bravado" was all that she did of note in a month-long strike.
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- Bushman, Claudia L. (1981). "A Good Poor Man's Wife": Being a Chronicle of Harriet Hanson Robinson and Her Family in Nineteenth-Century New England. Hannover, CT: University Press of New England. ISBN 9780874518832.
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- Selden, Bernice (1983). The mill girls: Lucy Larcom, Harriet Hanson Robinson, Sarah G. Bagley. Atheneum. ISBN 9780689310058.
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