Personal Narrative: The Bedford Female Labor Reform Essay

I wake up thinking I am in our old farmhouse. The sun streams through the window and a calm wind blows on my face. I feel almost content until I remember I will have to endure another long day of spinning cotton. When the machines came, we moved to Bedford, Massachusetts, and started working in a factory. We tend machines all day long until we can finally hurry to sleep. Seemingly minutes after we fall asleep, the bells ring before the roosters back at our farm would have crowed.

My mother works in a factory a few miles away, but she is becoming weak. My younger brother Eli works with me at the textile mill, and my older brother William works in the coal mines. Despite being only 36, she already has gray hair. Ever since Father caught the spotted fever, people gossip that she will soon be widowed.

I walk to the mill anticipating the long hours and toil. I enter the ugly building, where the familiar stench of smoke and sweat hits me. The people around us have purple rings under their eyes, their spines bent over from years of labor. I head to my spinning jenny and start guiding the thread. Two dollars a week, I remind myself. I have to do this.

What happens next forces me completely awake. Charlotte, a girl down the aisle from where I am working, yelps in pain. Her hair is caught in her machine, and the spinning levers scalp the back of her head, leaving blood everywhere. The manager, upset by the disturbance, raises his whip to lash her. Lines of blood run across her face. I step forward and rush to help her before I even comprehend what I am doing. I see a brown blur and I scream louder than humanly possible. My mother begged us, “Never give them a reason to punish you.” I’m sorry, Mother, for failing you.

The manager yells at Charlotte, “Learn to do your work properly, you good-for-nothing vermin!” Charlotte limps away, whimpering and bleeding.

“Thank you, Annette,” she mouths to me.

“And you!” he shouts at me, “You better be careful. You’ll be next. Now get back to work!”

My blood boils with rage as the manager leaves, while everyone else goes back to work as if nothing happened. He will pay for this. I will make sure he does. I apologize to Eli, expecting he is angry at me. Instead he smiles, and we both go back to work.

Several girls whisper in tight clusters after the manager leaves. They glare at me when I come close, but I still pick up snippets of their conversation. They mention a labor union for women. What? I have heard of unions before. I have seen people beaten and fired for being in a union. But there has never been a union for women. They motion each other to be quiet and go back to work. I approach them.

“Were you talking about a labor union?” I ask. They remain silent. “I might be interested.” Wait . . . why in God’s name did I say that? Had I not just been whipped?

“First swear you will keep everything secret,” one girl responds after deliberation.

“I swear.”

“We are starting a female labor union–the Bedford Female Labor Reform Association. We need to spread it without the bosses hearing.”

“I understand.” I start to move back to my spinning jenny, but she stops me.

“Remember, you swore not to tell.”

Fools. Why were they telling people about such plans within the factory? How could they ever start a union in such a way? Yet part of me wants to be in the union. It could mean that Eli and I would have better lives in the factory and possibly earn a higher pay. But most importantly, it means the bosses would learn a lesson. The manager would regret every thoughtless lash he struck on Charlotte.

After a few days of consideration, I decide to join the labor union. I tell the girls I talked to earlier, and they nod. The one who seems to be the leader says that the union will have its first meeting after the fifteen hour-shift in a nearby abandoned building. After my regular shift, I tell my brother that I will stay in the factory and work a longer shift. To my shock, at least a hundred people sneak into the building. Maybe there is hope for us.

When I see Mother after the meeting is finished, I tell her that I came late because I worked a longer shift. If I told her I joined a union, that would only have her worry about my job’s security. However, she ignores me and weeps quietly. Could she have found out what I had done anyway? I fearfully ask my mother what happened.

She collapses onto the floor and I sit next to her. I try to reassure her, but I know something must be wrong. Mother is a woman who survived so much hardship, and seeing her like this breaks my heart. That’s when I remember Father. I ask Mother, “Is Father okay?” She nods numbly, wiping her tears.

“Annette,” she chokes, “William . . . William died today in . . . an explosion.” She starts sobbing loudly now. I stare ahead. It was unimaginable. How could this happen? William, whom I had always admired, who kept us alive by working in the mines. Mother tells me to talk to Father and Eli, who are even more broken. I stand in front of them, wondering if standing still for long enough would help me forget the grief. Mother gets up and says we all must get sleep before our shifts. As I fall asleep, I hear the muffled cries of my family. To my surprise, I don’t cry. I was so stupidly sensitive when I rushed to save Charlotte, but now I feel nothing.

Mother, you may not perceive it, but I am damaged. William’s death broke me. It broke us. What can I do? Unable to sleep, I leave my room. As it turns out, Eli and Mother can’t sleep either.

“Mother, we will make it. I promise.”

“Annette, you are a strong child. I’m sorry that I need to put all this on you, but your father’s close to dying. William ― Annette, please forgive me.”

“For what?”

“For putting you through this. Go to sleep. You need to wake up tomorrow.”

I try to go to sleep. I don’t know how to think or feel. I guess I’m still trying to deny William’s death. Mother said I was strong. I’m clearly not. I don’t want to; I can’t admit that he is gone.

As I sleep, I think of William. I remember him coming home each day covered in sweat but still keeping a smile. Finally realizing what his death means to us, the first tears come. He was our main source of income, but now that burden falls to me. I fall apart and start sobbing. Mother and Eli are asleep, unaware of my breakdown. Let them think I am strong. That’s the only thing that can keep them strong.

The next few weeks are harsh. My fifteen hour shifts have turned into twenty hour shifts. But working at a textile mill will never sustain a family as a main source of income, especially not when the manager always studies me suspiciously. I struggle through everything, and so does Eli. I can’t pretend I don’t hope the labor union will work out for the better. Coughing uncontrollably, Eli has been constantly sick and burning hot. My life is slowly collapsing on itself.

The Bedford Female Labor Reform Association becomes a popular topic among Bedford’s textile girls. I hear tales of managers in other textile mills whipping and firing reported union members, tipped off by someone on the inside. Why have I gotten myself in this mess?

I think deeply. I work twenty-hour shifts, but Mother is still weak, Father is still bedridden, and Eli is sick. Something has to change. This is my one opportunity to make things right for my family. I know everyone in the union. If I inform the manager, I can make a good impression and make him forget the Charlotte incident. I can secure my job and perhaps even get a higher pay. But if I tell on the girls, their families could die. I would be sending them to their deaths. Can I stand seeing them tomorrow, beaten and sacked?

I eventually report on the girls. I hate myself for doing it, but I must do this for my family’s survival. I keep everything from Mother and Eli as I have so far. I do not want to reveal how weak and cruel I am.

When I go to work early the next day, the manager paces on my floor. I call him, clear my throat, and tell him the names of the girls in the labor union. I swear upon my life that they are guilty. I spend a few terrible hours alone at my machine before the others arrive. Had I really just done that? Ruined everyone’s lives for money? A horrible dread weighs me down and I prick myself absentmindedly. I fiercely push away my anger, telling myself once again I did it for my family.

When more people start arriving, I prepare myself for the whippings. I refuse to cry despite knowing that I caused this. I will myself to be strong and unfeeling, just as I was taught to be. That’s when I hear screams, just as expected. Although I try to turn away, I cannot ignore the dozens of girls convulsing on the factory floor, shrieking just to haunt me.

The manager turned to me and shouted, “Great work! You got yourself some more pay!”

The girls stare at me hatefully despite their pain, and I sob. The manager yells at them to get out of his factory. As they limp out, aching and hopeless, Charlotte stops before me. I flinch and feel something wet. She spit at me. Perhaps I deserve it.

When Mother finds out, she is angry for what I did. However, she is also proud of me for getting a higher pay. I don’t know which one scares me more. Eli is disgusted. He had always looked up to me, especially after I helped Charlotte. Now he refuses to talk to me. I suppose he isn’t willing to do what must be done to help.

People in the factory treat me as if I had the plague. When I walk to my machine, those around me move as far away as possible. I wait for things to get better. I wait to be accepted. I wait for the tears to dry. But it never changes.

Now my family makes more money. Father’s fever is getting slightly better. Eli is okay again. We are able to live and push on. Yet I cannot ignore the past when I go to bed. I am tortured by the memory of Charlotte spitting in my face, of those girls screaming, and all those families I doomed to save mine. I still hate myself. But I can’t help it. After all, these are the things we must do to survive.