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Primary Sources - Workshop in American History The Lowell Systemhomesitemap
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Workshop 3:  Lectures & Activities

Lecture Transcript Two:
The Legacy of Lowell

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Ron Adams: Professor, would you entertain some questions?

Professor Masur: I would be happy to.

Cheryl Maloney: One of the documents mentions class antagonism; that there—I think it's one by Dorothy Read, the paper—that, in fact, there were some middle-class women who looked out and saw these factory women in clothes that resembled theirs, with watches. And I just wondered if you'd comment on this class antagonism, and any part this had maybe in the demise of the Lowell Utopian experiment.

Professor Masur: That's very interesting. I mean, it's a different kind of class antagonism than the antagonism between labor and capital, right? This is— you're talking about within women themselves, thinking about the tensions between the lower classes and the middling classes. And, as we said, many of these women who came to the mills were not of the bourgeoisie or of the upper elite, and so there is a certain extent to which the empowerment that came with having money to buy items allowed them a sort of upward mobility into the middle class and that, sure, created tensions. And it's a really important point. It's an important point about class. And it's worth talking more about class and thinking about it. I mean, a lot of this, of course, is about gender. But there are class divides within gender, and there are undoubtedly class issues, as I was suggesting, with respect to workers as a class versus the capitalists as the class of employers.

What do you guys make of it? What do you guys make about the capitalists? What do you make about the whole notion of legitimizing capitalism in America as a system? I mean, we take it so for granted because it won. It sort of triumphed. But what do you make of that?

Sandra Stuppard: I wonder if it's not a natural extension of the mercantilist age. I mean, it almost seems as if it were, you know, fairly fluid, I mean, just natural to move into this capitalist period, that the seeds were already here, you know, America as a colony in a mercantilist society, or, again, as an extension of England. To me it seems so natural.

Professor Masur: Sure. Sure. And that's the nature of history. I mean, the nature of history is the things that happen and dominate, it's easy to see as sort of inevitable consequences and results. And part of it is to recover the sense of contingency, that, wait a minute, decisions are being made, actions are being taken. There are winners, and there are losers. And certainly when those women lost out on those strikes, they didn't feel anything inevitable about that. Conceivably, perhaps, they could have won. Conceivably all kinds of things would have happened. And while it's not necessarily our jobs as historians to post-count the factuals—you know, what if this and what if that?—still, it doesn't necessarily have to be a sense of total inevitability. Sure, capitalism may have had to have triumphed, but did it have to triumph in the way that it did? And perhaps the whole story would be different if for other factors and circumstances, to recover that sense of tension and antagonism, not just back then, but to recognize its ramifications over time. It's important to understand, I think, a great deal about these issues.

It's an incredible story, the Lowell story. It gives us an opportunity to probe so much about so many kinds of questions—this moment of deep change in American history, questions of gender and profound and important questions of class. These are questions that we can debate and should debate for a long time to come. And, you know, we have documents and sources that will allow us to continue to pursue these issues down the line. Thank you.

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