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The document project on which this lesson plan is based is available by subscription only from Alexander Street Press.

 

Introduction

On January 12, 1912, ten thousand woolen textile workers went on strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. The strike was precipitated by a paycut implemented by the American Woolen Company when a state law went into effect that reduced the weekly hours that women could legally work. Mill operatives believed that they deserved a living wage sufficient to support themselves, and resisted their employers' efforts to use the hours law as an excuse to reduce their wages. For weeks the strikers held out, mobilizing support through rallies and other events that publicized their plight. By February almost thirty thousand strikers had stopped virtually all production in Lawrence. Although most of the strikers were unskilled workers, and although they lived in a company town where the police and the media were controlled by the mill owners, within two months they gained a compromise settlement.

Objectives

To examine attitudes expressed in different publications toward the Lawrence Strike; to explore class differences in attitudes toward the strike; to discuss the gendered politics and rhetoric around the children of the Lawrence Strike; to think about the gendered viewpoints of three writers about the strike; to compare retrospective and contemporary accounts of the same event.

Lesson Ideas

Read "Lawrence Strike," in Mary Heaton Vorse, Footnote to Folly (1935). Describe the progress of the strike from this retrospective account. What is Vorse's point of view? Do you see how her account is influenced by her middle-class status? How else is Vorse different from the strikers? What is her attitude toward the strikers? Toward police? Toward mill-owners? Do you find this account credible, trustworthy?

Compare Vorse's description of the children's exodus from Lawrence with the description in the New York Times . Was the Times article sympathetic to the strikers? What was the author's political stance?

Have the students read "The Exiles from Lawrence to New York," as well as the introductory essay to Il Proletario . How did Il Proletario differ from mainstream newspapers? How did its treatment of the Children's Exodus differ from Vorse's account?

Help students synthesize all the pieces they read by asking them how the removal of children from Lawrence became a political act. If organizers conceived of the move as a way to help out striking parents, what did it symbolize? How were the children themselves portrayed in reports as politicized? How was the action "gendered" as feminine?

The brutality of police toward women and their children waiting to go to Philadelphia has been termed a "turning point" in public attitudes toward the strikers, and the public's support proved crucial to the workers' victories. What about this incident proved so pivotal, and why?

For Further Exploration

Any students fascinated by Mary Heaton Vorse's radical crusade may be interested in her biography, Mary Heaton Vorse: The Life of an American Insurgent, by Dee Garrison (1989). Students may want to explore Vorse's concurrent commitment to labor activism and feminism, or examine Vorse's personal conflicts--feeling torn between her work and her children, for example--or her skepticism of the Communist government in the Soviet Union.

Anyone who wants to explore further the viewpoint of the immigrant press toward labor activism, see the section on the Yiddish publication Forverts in "Workers and Allies in the New York City Shirtwaist Strike," also on this website.

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