Capitalism and Feudalism: The Lowell System
During the mid-nineteenth century, as the industrial revolution was taking shape, so too, was an economic system in Lowell, Massachusetts. The system involved a series of textile mills, which hired mostly women from rural towns, which were slowly giving way to the large cities as a result of industrialization. The textile mills hired the women to work long hours in brutal, often dangerous conditions, and many paid high rent to company boardinghouses. This may sound like feudalism, but it was, in fact, an example of oligarchical capitalism. However, it shares features with the conditions in "Norma Rae" and "Matewan".
In the Lowell System, power was concentrated within the textile companies, creating an oligarchy. The situation is best described by Thomas Dublin, in his book Women at Work when he writes that 'the textile corporations in Lowell...adopted a unified set of policies from the outset. They shared waterpower rights, technological developments, labor policies, and marketing strategies.' (Thomas Dublin, Women at Work. p. 10) The logic behind the co-operation of the different companies was that the 'textile firms in this period were owned and directed by a narrow circle of capitalists, known collectively as the Boston Associates'. (Thomas Dublin, Women at Work, p. 10) This created an oligarchical situation because there was collective control by the companies. The oligarchy existed within a capitalist system, however, because the workers had a choice of which company to work for and the textile mills were not the only places to work. The textile industry was a major industry at the time. However, one could still lead a normal life without working in the textile mill. Furthermore, the women who worked there chose to be there, and were paid monthly for their labor, which is similar to the way the workers were paid in "Norma Rae," as is the capitalist aspect. The workers in "Norma Rae" had a choice of where to work, as did the women and few men who worked in the mills in Lowell.
However the conditions in the mills were at times feudal, as in "Matewan," and at other times simply not ideal. An observer's description of the conditions under which the women in the mills worked notes that "the operatives work thirteen hours a day in the summer time and from daylight to dark in the winter" (Massachusetts House Document, no. 50, March, 1845). The observer also noted that the workers were under "close attention," (Ibid.) meaning supervision, as was the case in "Norma Rae," a position which the title character held very briefly. The workers in both cases were constantly monitored to ensure that they were working the full time they were being paid to. However, in the case of the Lowell System, the amount of output was directly proportional to the pay, which is similar to "Matewan," where the workers were paid by the tonnage of coal they produced, which motivated them to work; however, the company...