Representing Women’s Work

Andreá N. Williams
The Ohio State University

I taught The Factory Girl in an undergraduate survey, Colonial and U.S. Literature to 1865. Given my own research interests in class and labor in nineteenth-century U.S. fiction, as in my book Dividing Lines: Class Anxiety and Postbellum Black Fiction (Michigan, 2013), I wanted to draw my students’ attention to a number of nineteenth-century texts that both highlight and obscure labor. Elsewhere in the class, we read Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and “The Tartarus of Maids,” Rebecca Harding Davis’s “Life in the Iron Mills,” and slave narratives that expose African American labor exploitation. Savage’s text was a useful addition to the course. In the introduction to The Factory Girl, editors Ed White and Duncan Faherty immediately note the text for its “lack of industrial details.” This observation led our class to consider two opening questions: How do authors write about work without showing it? If the text’s major setting isn’t the workplace, where does the titular factory girl perform her most central work? Using a more liberal understanding of “work,” our class traced the various forms of labor that the protagonist Mary performs, including factory work, teaching, childrearing, and the affective labor of producing moral sentiments in her friends and neighbors. Overall, the book was well-received by students, and I would teach it again.

In noting how Mary’s actual factory work is kept nearly invisible, we considered how several nineteenth-century writers often aestheticize labor by ignoring its materiality. In my PowerPoint slides for the lecture, I especially featured this quote from critic Cindy Weinstein’s The Literature of Labor and the Labors of Literature: “Erasing the visible signs of labor became a cultural imperative, whether in factories, in landscapes, or in fictions” (23). With this in mind, students raised several questions about the actual factory conditions during Savage’s period. It’s useful for instructors to provide some historical background here and White and Faherty’s introduction offers some leads. But rather than thinking of The Factory Girl only in terms of its fidelity to historical conditions, our class considered the relationship between literary representation and social influence. We wondered whether The Factory Girl responds to industrial labor patterns already under way or whether, through its omissions, the text serves to foment favorable attitudes about women’s wage-earning and factory labor, regardless of historical reality. After getting over the matter of “is this realistic,” we could focus on the fictional elements through which Savage delivers her didactic message about a blend of work ethic, morality, and domesticity.

In the progression of the course, The Factory Girl was the first fiction that we read. One student noted that she preferred this piece over the eighteenth-century seduction narratives that are often the early fictional samples in an American literature survey course. Several students also favored Savage’s novella over what they considered the “dry autobiographical writings” earlier in the course. But keeping in mind the skills of rhetorical analysis that we had addressed in the nonfiction, students were quick to identify Savage’s persuasive intent and to trace the use of pathos, ethos, and logos in her characters’ debates. Students also compared Mary to her foils, and noted the role of Providence as a means of narrative causation (since we’d talked about how much Providence accounts for how and why things happen in much earlier texts such as Mary Rowlandson’s narrative).

The Factory Girl was an especially provocative addition to our discussions of work because Mary’s plot of upward mobility differs from the masculine accounts presented by Benjamin Franklin and Olaudah Equiano, whose works we read a few days before Savage’s. Contrary to those narrators’ individualism, Mary often engineers collective advancement for her extended family. For example, she provides a home for her cousins, though it strains her own meager income as an unmarried working woman. As we traced how Mary achieves upward mobility, we particularly honed in on the novella’s concluding marriage plot and Mary’s role as a stepmother. The text fits nicely with a discussion of republican motherhood, given Mary’s affective labor within her home and community. After all, Mary’s work is not only to produce goods, as she does at the factory, but to (re)produce good people through her moral influence. Still, a few students insisted that Mary gave up her “independence” by marrying.

I taught The Factory Girl in a single 55-minute lecture. Following the reading, about one-third of the students (19) completed an optional online discussion post about their reaction to the text. This was an extra credit assignment. Almost all the students who volunteered to post noted that they liked the text, found it entertaining, or thought that it added texture to the course readings. The responses might be best summarized in one student’s comment: “The Factory Girl opened my eyes to the fact that there are still many unheard of authors, whose stories from hundreds of years ago can still be relevant to our culture and help us fully see how life was back then.” Students also commented on their experience of reading The Factory Girl as an electronic text. Most students appreciated that it was convenient and free to download. A minority of students said they prefer the sensory experience of handling a hard copy edition.

In addition, I’d like to offer the following recommendations to future teachers. In teaching the text, often to students who have little Biblical literacy as a tool for textual analysis, professors may need to be prepared to explain what is at stake in the characters’ discussions over matters such as attending a dance, gossiping, or spending one’s money on leisure activities. Doing this helps to complicate some students’ assumptions that American literature and culture was pretty much secularized after the American Revolution. I had not read The Factory Girl before joining the Just Teach One project, but I would teach the text again in other undergraduate and graduate courses.

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