Harriet Hanson Robinson went to work as a Lowell mill girl when she was 10 years old to help support her family. She grew up to earn fame, if not fortune. She started off writing the mill girls’ magazine, The Lowell Offering, then wrote books and led the woman’s rights movement.
Harriet was able to leave the mills for two years to attend high school, where she studied French, Latin and English grammar. While there she wrote two essays that typified her spirit: “Poverty Not Disgraceful,” was one, while “Indolence and Industry” praised the honest labor of the poor.
Harriet Hanson Robinson
She was born in Boston on Feb. 8, 1825. Her father died suddenly when she was six and her widowed mother struggled to support her four children. A neighbor offered to adopt Harriet, but her mother replied, “No; while I have one meal of victuals a day, I will not part with my children.”
Harriet wondered for years what ‘victuals’ meant.
Her mother tried to run a small store selling candy, food and firewood. The family lived in a room at the back of the store, five of them in one bed. Though friends helped out, she couldn’t make a go of it.
Finally, Harriet’s aunt invited her to come to Lowell, Mass., to run a boardinghouse for mill girls. The giant textile mills then hired Yankee farm girls under a paternalistic system that paid them decently, worked them long hours and supervised their lives closely.
In the early years of the Lowell mills, the mill girls could take advantage of cultural offerings: libraries, concerts, improvement circles and lectures by people like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Harriet recalled how the mill girls would attach poems and hymns to their looms and frames so they could memorize them while they worked.
Working conditions in the mills deteriorated over time, and the mill owners replaced the Yankee mill girls with immigrant families who were exploited and abused. When Harriet Hanson Robinson worked in the mills, though, the mill girls were respected, even admired.
Harriet went to work as a bobbin doffer, removing full bobbins of thread and replacing them with empty ones. It wasn’t hard work, requiring only about 15 minutes of actual labor every hour, and she could read or play during her spare time.
When Harriet was 11, the mill owners raised the mill girls’ boarding charges, which equaled a 12.5 percent pay cut. The mill girls went on strike, or ‘turn out,’ as they called it. In her autobiography, Loom and Spindle, Harriet Hanson Robinson wrote the girls in the upper rooms walked off the job, shutting down the mill.
She wrote, “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.”
Sarah Bagley, an important labor leader in her own right, also took part in the strike.
Not only did the strike fail, but Harriet’s mother lost her job in retaliation for her daughter’s action. Still, Harriet Hanson Robinson wrote years later that it was the proudest moment of her life, and would be exceeded only when women got the right to vote. She didn’t live long enough to see it.
Harriet continued to work in the mills, rising to spinner and drawing-in girl. She fought to attend Lowell High School for two years, then afterward she returned to the mills. She wrote stories and poetry for the Offering, the first magazine in the world written exclusively by women, and which had supporters throughout the country.
One of the best writers, wrote Harriet, was Betsey Guppy Chamberlain, an Indian who published some of the first criticisms of her people’s treatment. Lucy Larcom, another talented writer, also wrote for the Offering.
“The fame of The Lowell Offering caused the mill girls to be considered very desirable for wives,” wrote Harriet. “Young men came from near and far to pick and choose for themselves, and generally with good success.”
At 23 she married William Stevens Robinson, a journalist who strongly opposed slavery. A poem she submitted to his newspaper had first attracted him to her.
His opinions made it hard for him to keep a job and the couple often struggled. They lived for a while in Concord, Mass., where Thoreau occasionally called on them. Harriet thought he shouldn’t have wasted his abilities and suspected his mother had fed him while he stayed in his cabin at Walden.
They moved to Malden, Mass., and had four children, three of whom lived to adulthood. In 1862, William got a good job as clerk of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, which he would hold for 11 years until then-U.S. Rep. Benjamin Butler forced him out.
At 51, Harriet Hanson Robinson became a widow when William died after a long illness. She rented out rooms to support her mother and three daughters and wrote books, including Loom and Spindle, still in print.
By then she joined the suffrage movement. She and her daughter, Harriet Lucy Robinson Shattuck, organized the National Woman Suffrage Association of Massachusetts and helped Julia Ward Howe form the New England Women’s Club. A powerful advocate for women’s rights as a writer and speaker, she testified before the Select Committee on Woman Suffrage in Congress.
Harriet Hanson Robinson lived to be 86. She died at home in Malden on Dec. 22, 1911.
This story about Harriet Hanson Robinson was updated in 2020.