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Bill asks for proclamation marking 1st labor strike by women

January 18, 2020 GMT

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — A state lawmaker has introduced a bill asking for a yearly proclamation commemorating the first labor strike in the United States by women, which was in Dover, New Hampshire.

On Dec. 30, 1828, about 400 women walked out for three days in protest of harsh, dangerous working conditions and reduced wages at Cocheco Manufacturing Co.’s cotton mills. It became known as the “Mill Girls Strike” because girls as young as 12 worked at the city’s textile mills, said state Rep. Casey Conley, a Democrat from Dover who is sponsoring the bill.

“This was the first labor action of its kind in U.S. history led by women,” Conley said in prepared remarks for a bill hearing Thursday. “Hundreds of women walked out of the mill to protest wage cuts and long hours.”

Women did most of the labor in textile mills, working looms and weaving machines. The red brick buildings that housed the mills in Dover today are home to lofts, shops, breweries and restaurants.

“It was dangerous work in an environment that most of us now broadly agree is unacceptable for any worker,” Conley said. “Women lost fingers and hands, and there were cases where women were scalped when their hair became tangled in the machines. Men held jobs as the mill bosses, overseers, mechanics, clerks and the like.”

During the walkout, Conley said, the group’s primary grievance was the pay cut and long hours enacted by the mill’s new owners. The pay cut was 5 cents, or about 10% of their 47-cent-a-day wage. The group, which grew to 600, marched through town.

The group passed several resolutions, according to information gathered by the Dover Public Library. First, they said, they would never consent to work at the reduced wages. They believed the “unusual pressure of time” to work was caused by “the artful and designing men to subserve party purposes.” And they resented the wage reduction “while those of our overseers and agent are continued to them at their former high rate.”

A newspaper account at the time predicted that the women would return to the mill, Conley said, and several days later, nearly all did — but many lost their jobs.

The event came several years before better-known labor actions led by women in Lowell, Massachusetts, and elsewhere in New England, he said. The Lowell workers learned from the Dover walkout for a more successful protest in 1836.

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This story has been updated to correct Casey Conley’s gender pronoun to he, instead of she.