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Weaving the Whole Cloth: Women in Antebellum Vermont

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Most of us who are familiar with the broad literature on women's social and economic roles in antebellum New England appreciate that women were a vital part of rural economic development. Yet, there remains a persistent power in farm communities. Many still agree with Alexander Hamilton that young women, in particular, were an "idle" potential labor force that could be, and was, tapped to produce greater wealth for the nation. Another misperception, fueled by some of these young mill workers themselves, presumes that mill girls went to the mills out of economic necessity, as their useful contributions at home were limited, and the needs of their rural families were greater than could be provided for on the home farm. Thus the image so frequent in "mill girl" publications and memoirs: sisters and daughters toiling at the mill, to pay off their fathers' debts and their brothers' college tuition. Both perceptions are inaccurate. Young women took advantage of the relative scarcity of their labor on the farm to seek out better opportunities both at home and in rural and urban mill settings. Their motivations in seeking wage employment were varied but were as likely to serve their own interests as that of their immediate families. In the "whole cloth" of economic development in antebellum Vermont, women were weavers as well as warp and weft. They moved into industrial employments in greatest numbers as Vermont experienced one of history' s great economic "bubbles": the "wool boom" period of the l830s, enabling many Vermont families to participate in a blossoming consumer culture that increased interest in wage income, while it actually increased the demand for women's labor in the home. Dawn Saunders explores Vermont's economic history through probate records, family letters, and archival local histories as she seeks to measure the breadth and width of the whole economic cloth. Dawn Saunders is an economic historian and labor economist in the Department of Economics at the University of Vermont. She received her Ph.D. in economics from the University of Massachusetts, with a dissertation exploring the interconnections between women's labor markets and early twentieth-century welfare programs.

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