In chapter 12 of Lyddie, as the girls are debating whether to agitate for better working conditions, Betsy mentions her participation in a “turnout” as a child worker “back in ’36.” The term “turnout” was then used for “strike.” She is referring to an actual strike that the young workers, or “mill girls,” staged in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1836. In this chapter and the following one, the reader learns about the ever-worsening conditions that the girls are expected to tolerate. These include longer hours and lower hourly wages.
Paterson largely based her fictional treatment of this event and its impact on a memoir by an actual participant, Harriet Hanson Robinson, who was eleven years old when she joined the strike. In Loom and Spindle; Or, Life Among the Early Mill Girls, Robinson states that the strike had both positive and negative influence on attitudes toward child labor. It helped raised public awareness of the girls’ working conditions, but that awareness did not necessarily lead to positive changes.
Robinson credits her early activism as making her more aware of their value and of the power of protest. As the working girls learned of other, better opportunities, many of them left the mills. The immediate effects of the strike, however, included the mill owners’ retaliation against “the supposed ringleaders” and their families: Robinson and her mother were evicted from their rooms. Furthermore, far from acceding to the workers’ demands, the owners continued to reduce their wages.