Women in World History
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Sample Activity

Below are excerpts from four of the documents in Section One

Recruitment for Factory Work

It was no coincidence that women, and children, made up much of the workforce of the early factories. To jump start an industry, a owner needed cheap labor. Nineteenth/early twentieth century women had few alternatives for work, and thus took whatever pay and conditions were offered in order to feed themselves and their families. Women also were sought as desirable employees because of age-old beliefs that they, more than men, were nimble-fingered, dexterous, careful, meticulous and quick. Accustomed to a world in which male authority ruled, employers counted on them to be compliant, docile workers.

After reading these accounts from England, Japan, and China, answer the questions on the Analyzing the Accounts discussion sheet.

“Gone To Weave By Steam”
Anti-Power Loom Song, England, 1820s

With the invention of the power loom, hand weavers who worked at home found themselves losing out to large textile mills which recruited young women and paid them low wages. This was the weavers protest song.

“Come all you cotton weavers,
Your looms you may pull down;
You must get employed in factories,
In country or in town,
For our cotton masters have found out
A wonderful new scheme,
These calico goods now wove by hand
They’re going to weave by steam...
If you go into a loom-shop
Where there’s three or four pair of looms,
They are all standing empty,
Encumbrances of the rooms;
And if you ask the reason why,
The old mother will tell you plain,
My daughters have forsaken them,
And gone to weave by steam...”

Source: Jon Raven, Victoria’s Inferno: Songs of the Old Mills and Mines, Broadside, England.

“My Family Was Poor”
Japanese Workers Song, late 19th century

“My family was poor,
At the tender age of twelve
I was sold to a factory....

I was carried away by sweet-sounding words.
My money was stolen and thrown away.
Unaware of the hardship of the future,
I was duckweed in the wind.

Excited I arrived at the gate, where I bowed to the doorman,
I was taken immediately to the dormitory,
Where I bowed to the room supervisor.
I was taken immediately to the infirmary,
Where I risked my life having a medical examination.
I was taken immediately to the cafeteria,
Where I asked what was for dinner.
I was told it was low-grade rice mixed with sand....

We friends are wretched,
Separated from our homes in a strange place,
Put in a miserable dormitory
Waken up at four-thirty in the morning,
Eating when five o’clock sounds,
Dressing at the third bell,
Glared at by the manager and section head,
Used by the inspector.
How wretched we are!”

Source: E. Patricia Tsurumi, Factory Girls: Women in the Thread Mills of Meiji Japan.

“I Would Be Happy”
Sister Qian, Mill Worker, China

“At this time, Froggy Zhou, who was a boss in Shanghai, came back to the village. He had been a small-time hustler for a long time, and his persuasive style had enabled him to swindle many people. Seeing that my family was in difficult circumstances, he spoke to my parents about taking me to a textile mill in Shanghai. Once I got there, he said, everything would work out fine. I would be happy, living in a foreign-style house along the Wusong River, eating good food, and wearing stylish clothes. On top of that, my parents would get three dan of rice after I had worked for three years.”

Source: Ono Kazuko, Chinese Women in a Century of Revolution: 1850-1950.

Lured to the Factory”
China, 2004

It is China’s small industries, which are not regulated and pay the lowest wages, that fuel the country’s sizzling export sector. These factories assembly the toys, clothes, shoes, tools, electronics, decorative items, and cosmetic goods that flood the shelves of stores in the West. The South Korean small company called Daxu came to China ten years ago because Korean companies could no longer compete in the market for the company’s production of false eyelashes, which sell for as little as 50 cents a set in Asia and the United States. The workers recruited for this company come from the impoverished rural north.

“Ma Pighui, 16, and her friend Wei Qi, also 16 and also a Chinese farm girl barely out of junior high school, had been lured to the factory in Anshan by a South Korean boss who said he was prepared to pay $120 a month, a princely sum for unskilled peasants, to make false eyelashes. Their local government labor bureau lent its support, recruiting workers and arranging a bus to take them to the big city of Anshan. The girls first heard about the job offer from an advertisement on local television. The ad was sponsored by the Labor Bureau of Huairen Country. ‘If this had not been arranged through official channels, we would not have let such a young girl go,’ said Wei Zhixing, Ms. Wei’s father.

As soon as they arrived in Anshan, however, the problems began. They were asked to sign a contract that offered monthly pay far below the advertised level, initially just $24, minus a $13 charge for room and board. Bonuses were promised, but only for those who produced eyelashes above quotas. The contract also demanded that workers pay the boss $58 if they left before the end of the year long contract, and $2,400 if they ‘stole intellectual property’ by defecting to a rival eyelash maker. Such terms are not unusual. Cut-throat capitalism and sweatshop factories are as much a part of China’s economic revolution today as they were the early days of industrialization in the West.”

Source: Excerpt from “Chinese Girls’ Toil Brings Pain, Not Riches,” Joseph Kahn, New York Times, October, 2, 2003.

Analyzing the Accounts

After reading the accounts:

1. List the reasons that illustrate why women left home to work in the factories.




2. What types of information do these accounts provide in answering the question:
   Why did young women go off to the factories?




3. Give examples from the accounts that show that the position of young women within their family and society contributed to their factory recruitment.




4. Think about:

- The types of work in which women were employed. Would they be able to work their way up the ladder, or end up in a “dead end” job?

- Who benefited from the labor of these young women?

- What similarities and differences might there be between women’s work in factories a century ago and today?

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Women in World History Curriculum