University of New England Professor of History Elizabeth DeWolfe, Ph.D., recently served as a guest on a Maine Public panel discussion about the history of women in Maine in a series celebrating the state’s bicentennial.
DeWolfe took part in the panel, “The History of Women in Maine: How Maine Has Been Shaped by the Work of Women Over the Centuries,” on Sept. 4. She was joined by Eileen Eagan, associate professor of history at the University of Southern Maine; Anne Gass, a Maine historian and author; and Candace Kane, a journalist, historian, and former curator of the Maine Memory Network.
DeWolfe, co-founder of the Women’s and Gender Studies program at UNE, discussed the ways in which women composed much of Maine’s textile workforce in the mid-19th Century. That period of time, she said, was a shift from the previous, home-based production of essential products to a period of increased industrialization led primarily by women.
“In an earlier generation, these women … would be working either in the field or at home. By the mid-century, it was simply cheaper to buy those products,” DeWolfe said. “The thought was: ‘You have a group of young women who were not quite ready for marriage, but who have turned into sort of an economic drain at home – so why not put their hands to good use?'”
The period of time was also one where the “mill girls” started to recognize their financial independence, DeWolfe told the panel. Rather than simply sending all of their earnings home to their families, the young women began to pocket portions of their salaries to provide for themselves.
“Initially, the girls were very dutiful,” she said. “But mill girls very quickly learned the value of their own labor.”
DeWolfe is a noted historian whose research explores “ordinary women who find themselves in extraordinary situations.”
She has talked at length of the importance of the Industrial Revolution’s importance to Maine’s sustainability as a state. She has also documented women’s contributions to Biddeford’s mill history, particularly during “The Great Turn-out of 1841,” the first known labor strike in Maine’s history, which was led entirely by young women.