Celebrating Women’s History Month: A Profile of Suffragist Harriet Hanson Robinson

By Inna Babitskaya

Harriet Hanson Robinson was one of the most outstanding American women in 19th century. She proved that women were able to reach the top of society. She played a significant role in the women’s suffrage movement as historiographer, creating unique works about Massachusetts’ input into the suffrage movement, and describing the Lowell mills girls, including her friends and fellow suffragists.

Harriet’s Heritage

Harriet was born in Boston in 1825. Her father was William Hanson and her mother – Harriett (Browne) Hanson. Her father’ ancestors – English Quakers – were among first settlers in Dover, N.H. Her mother’s ancestors were “of Scotch and English descent”. Among them was Nicholas Browne – a member of the Great and General Court of Massachusetts (in 1641, 1655-1656, and 1661). Harriet (Browne) Hanson great-grandfather, William Browne, a soldier in the French and Indian war in Canada, in 1705 sold 60 acres of his land in Cambridge to Thomas Brattle, Esq., Treasurer of the society ”The President and Fellows of Harvard University”.

On Mr. Browne’ lands were built many of the Harvard buildings. Harriet Hanson’s grandfather, Seth Ingersoy Browne, was a non-commissioned captain at the battle of Bunker Hill, and one of the “Mohawks” who threw the tea into Boston Harbor. Maybe, that’s why Harriet’ mother often reminded her to remember that she “was born the year the corner-stone was laid for the Bunker Hill Monument.”

Early Childhood

William Hanson was a poor carpenter and died when his daughter Harriet was 6 years old. Mrs. Hanson became a widow at age 36. She was left with 4 children and with no means to support them.

At this time, some poor families often gave their children for adoption to the wealthy relatives or friends.  But when a neighbor offered to adopt young Harriet, Mrs. Hanson refused, “No. While I have one meal of victuals a day, I will not part with my children.” Harriet remembered these words all her life, despite her lack of understanding the word victuals.

Mrs. Hanson’s late husband’s friends helped her to open a grocery store. The family lived in a room behind the shop, and in cold winter “all slept in one bed, two at the foot and three at the head.” Despite their financial difficulties, the children went to school daily; Harriet also attended a sewing school on Saturdays.

“There was no great income from shop, and we soon became poorer than ever,” wrote Harriet. When her aunt offered Mrs. Hanson the ability to move to Lowell to become a housekeeper for the textile mill’s boardinghouse, it was gladly accepted.

Life in Lowell

In 1831, the Hansons moved to Lowell, the “City of Spindles”, a rapidly developing center of textile manufacturing, 20 miles from Boston. Lowell was created by the co-founders of Boston Manufacturing Company and named after the man who became one of the leaders of American Industrial Revolution – Francis Cabot Lowell. Francis Lowell could not only memorize the plans of British power looms, but, with the help of gifted local mechanic, improved their design and organized the textile manufacturing in Waltham, MA. His Boston Manufacturing Company was the first textile mill in the USA where all the processes had been done in one building: spinning and weaving machines, operated by water or steam power, converted raw cotton into cloth.

Lowell also created a special system of employment that later got his name. He decided to hire young women from the local farms. Though their wages were lower than those of men, the “Lowell girls” could live in boarding houses with chaperones – housekeepers, had chances to get education and to pursue different cultural activities.

As Harriet Robinson wrote later in “Loom and Spindle”, the “mill girls included farmer’s daughters aching for city life, women from fine families who did not really need the money but wanted to be in a cultured and stimulating environment… women with past histories… married women running away from husbands who had mistreated them, and unmarried women who had been dependent on relatives for their support.”

When young Harriet moved to Lowell, she didn’t know that four years later she would be one of these girls. Her mother, as a widow, became a housekeeper of the boarding house, and all her children helped her to wash dishes, clean the rooms, or prepare food for the residents. The Hansons and their boarders lived as a huge family, and some of the men-boarders liked to spend their free time with Harriet and her siblings.

Work at the Lowell Mills

In 1835, when Harriet was 10 years old, she could convince her mother to allow her become a bobbin doffer at the Tremont Corporation.

Doffers had to take took full bobbins, or large spools, off the spinning frames of the factory’s machines, and replaced them with empty ones. Bobbin doffers were needed for 15 minutes every hour but they had to be present for the entire 14-hour workday.

“The rest of the time,” Harriet later wrote, “was their own, and when the overseer was kind, they were allowed to read, knit, or even to go outside the mill-yard and play. We were paid two dollars a week; and how proud I was when my turn came to stand up on the bobbin-box, and write my name in the paymaster’s book.”

Robinson recalled her life in the mills as pleasant. She told: “We were not hurried any more than what was for our good, and no more work was required of us than we were able easily to do”. She also added that most of the children were well fed, eating three meals a day.

Harriet also underlined the atmosphere of comradeship that existed among girls. The older girls had a big influence on the younger girls. They shared their hopes and plans, as well as sad stories about the mill-children including those who worked in England, singing about them the mournful songs.

First Strike

When mill owners decided to cut salaries and to cease payment for the workers’ room and board, workers went on strike. The mill girls who worked together with Harriet argued about whether to join the strike. Harriet, despite her young age, decisively told that she was going on strike and didn’t care what they did. She was so charismatic that all her co-workers followed her. However, their strike didn’t bring the expected results. The wages were cut out.

Drawing-in Girl

When Harriet was older, she became a drawing-in girl, which was one of the most desirable positions in the mill. She considered this to be one of the better jobs.

Drawing-in girls drew in the threads of the warp through the harness and the reed, preparing the beams for the weaver’s loom. The drawing-in girls were paid by the piece, not by the hour, so they could work at their own pace. They even could read, working in small rooms away from the busiest and noisiest part of the mill, and Harriet often used this chance.

Harriet too brightly portrayed the mill life but her circumstances have been better than those of her fellow co-workers. She lived with her family, and her job was relatively easy. Maybe, her memoirs were more positive simply because it is more typical for childhood and youth’ reminiscences.

Harriet underlined that a strict factory discipline helped the mill girls in their future life: “We worked and played at regular intervals, and thus our hands became deft, our fingers nimble, our feet swift…; it was, in fact, a sort of manual training or industrial school.” Mill girls learned how to speak in a city way, to wear fashionable clothes and to behave properly.

Education

Harriet attended school until she went to work at the mill. She liked to read and spent most of her time reading. One of her mother’s boarders allowed Harriet to read the library books in exchange for bringing them to her. Harriet was so eager to study that she also took classes in evening schools for factory operatives that were opened in Lowell.

When she was thirteen, Harriet left her job at the mills for two years off from to attend Lowell High School that was located above a butcher shop. There she learned French, Latin, and English grammar and composition. She used her salary to pay for private lessons in drawing, German, and dancing. Even then she tried to analyze the life of the working people, writing “Poverty Not Disgraceful” and “Indolence and Industry“. Harriet, together with other mill girls, liked to hear lectures.

According to Harvard professor A. P. Peabody, they were exceptional students: “I have never seen anywhere so assiduous note-taking. No, not even in a college class, … as in that assembly of young women, laboring for their subsistence.”

Early Writing Career

Harriet joined in many of the literary groups that existed in Lowell. During this time she began to write poetry, short stories, and essays about abolition of slavery and women’s rights. Some of her early works were published in the Lowell Offering, a unique literary magazine created for and by the mill girls. The Offering received praise from literary circles around the country and even by such world-famous writers, as George Sand and Charles Dickens who wrote that the magazine could “compare advantageously with a great many English annals.”

Marriage and Family

Harriet met William Stevens Robinson, journalist and politician, when she took some of her poetry to the Lowell Journal, where he worked as an editor. William wrote anti-slavery articles using the pen-name “Warrington” and was the author of “Warrington’s Manual of Parliamentary Law.”

Later he founded the Free Soil party. Robinson was an idealist in politics and believed in telling God’s truth wherever possible.  No wonder, that he, with his liberal views, had a lot of enemies. After they married in 1848, Harriet joined William in his political activity, and she also continued to write, acting as his “silent partner.” Her husband’s influence formed Harriet’s political and social beliefs.

Harriet remembered that William “often read aloud to me countless books on abstruse political and general subjects, which I never should have thought of reading for myself.” William and Harriet were partners both in their abolitionist and women’s rights fight.

Harriet and William had four children, one of whom died in infancy. In 1857 they moved to Malden. Their former house on 35 Lincoln Street, where the National Women’s Suffrage Association was founded, was declared a Malden landmark during the US bicentennial celebration in 1976.

Late Writing Career

William Robinson died in 1876. A year later, in 1877, a 51-year-old widow published a collection of her husband’s work Warrington Pen-Portraits. Harriet herself sold his book, working as a sales agent.

Harriet was left without means to live, and had to support herself by writing mostly children stories. She also continued to write about factory labor and mill girls (Early Factory Labor in New England, 1883).

At the age of 73, Harriet wrote Loom and Spindle: Life Among the Early Mill Girls, a memoir of her work at the Lowell Mills.  She not only described the working conditions at the mill, but also explained why so many women preferred to work there. Harriet considered her working experience positively, believing that she made her own input into industrial development, as well as into the fight for women’s rights. She also proudly told about her participation in strike, adding that voting rights for women could make her happier.

Among other works written by Harriet Hanson Robinson were Captain Mary Miller (1887) and The New Pandora (1889).

Suffragist and Fighter for Women’s Rights

Besides helping her husband with his anti-slavery and reform activities, Harriet Robinson became the active proponent of women’s rights. Together with her husband Harriet participated in The Centennial Tea Party in Boston in 1873, which members used a famous motto “taxation without representation is tyranny,” for the fight for women’ rights. In 1876, Harriet Robinson organized women’ rights conventions in Malden, Melrose and Concord.

After William’s death, Harriet devoted most of her time to the feminist activity. She wrote about women’s efforts to gain the vote, and published two plays about the suffrage.

In 1881, Harriet Robinson wrote a history of Massachusetts in the Woman Suffrage Movement. With her elder daughter, Harriet Robinson Shattuck (Hattie), Robinson joined the National Woman Suffrage Association that was formed in 1882, and fought for women’s right to vote as well as for their working and family rights.

Lucy Larcom told about her friend: “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.”

In December 1886 and January 1887, both Harriet H. Robinson and her daughter Hattie participated in “debate on women’s suffrage” in the U.S. Senate.

Hattie said: “It is our right, and as a matter of justice we claim it as human beings and as citizens, and as moral, responsible, and spiritual beings, whose voice ought to be heard in the Government, and who ought to take hand with men and help the world to become better.”

The woman’s club movement always had Robinsons’ special support. In 1878 Harriet and Hattie founded a women’s club “Old and New” in Malden. They also participated in creation of The General Federation of Women’s Clubs in 1890, and Harriet was a member of its first advisory board. She also was a Daughter of the American Revolution, and a member of the N. E. Historic Genealogical Society.

Harriet Robinson was often invited to read lectures about her life as a mill girl. Among her audience were women who worked in the mills at this period time and who told her about significant worsening of working conditions, including low wages and more intensive workday.

Last Years of Life

Harriet Robinson spent the last years of her life with her family. She still read a lot, continued to write, and sewed. She died at her home on 35 Lincoln St. in Malden on December 22, 1911 at the age of eighty-six.

Death notices underlined her contribution into the fight for women’s rights. Harriet H. Robinson was not only an active suffragist, but also a very talented writer who could describe the early era of American Industrial Revolution and those who became its embodiment – the Lowell mill girls.

References