1844 New England Workingmen's Association, Lowell Female Labor Reform Association Founded
In 1842 the mechanics of Fall River petitioned the Massachusetts legislature for a 10-hour workday. This demand was largely ignored by the legislature and two years later the mechanics called for a region-wide convention to deal with the question of a 10-hour workday. This convention, held in October 1844, resulted in the formation of the New England Workingmen’s Association (NEWA). NEWA meetings focused on the issue of a 10-hour workday. Like other labor leaders of the 1840s, NEWA members stressed the connection between ten hours and citizenship. Association meetings frequently ended with the resolution that “an abridgement of the hours of labor” was necessary to “render every citizen of the commonwealth worthy and capable to perform the sacred duties of a freeman.”
NEWA was unique among other labor organizations of the time because of its inclusion of middle-class reformers who stressed issues such as land reform, and women, who frequently found themselves excluded from other groups. Many labor organizations during this period would not allow even basic membership to women, however the NEWA constitution made a point of extending “all the rights, privileges, and obligations” of membership to women’s labor groups.
Some of the most important contributions of women’s labor groups came from the women working in Lowell’s mills. Like the Fall River mechanics, the Lowell Mill workers petitioned the legislature for a 10-hour workday. Petitions were sent out in 1843 and 1844, both of which contained over one thousand signatures. In December of 1844 the mill workers formed the Lowell Female Reform Association (LFLRA), which became a member of NEWA.
The LFLRA was fundamental in the struggle for a 10-hour workday. The nature of the group allowed for a unique argument to be made. The LFLRA pointed out that women were expected to raise the next generation of men, something that they could not adequately do with a twelve-hour workday. Labor issues were not the only things pursued by the LFLRA; women’s rights were also a prominent concern for the group. As Sarah Bagley, the president of the LFLRA, stated at the first meeting of NEWA, “For the last half century it has been deemed a violation of a women’s sphere to appear before the public as a speaker; but when our rights are trampled upon and we appeal in vain to legislators, what shall we do but appeal to the people?” It was through the crusade for a 10-hour workday that many women found themselves liberated from narrow family and work roles and thrust into the world of politics and public debate. Not only did the LFLRA make strides for working people everywhere, it also helped many women find their public voice.