Suppose It Were Your Daughter?

John Potter, & Michelle Reidel. “Suppose it were your daughter”: Gender, Class and Work as Perceived by Women Factory Inspectors in Gilded Age Massachusetts. Presented at the 20th Annual Southwestern Labor Studies Conference. April, 1994.


In 1891, Massachusetts appointed its first two women factory inspectors. One, Fanny Ames, was from a middle-class background; the other, Mary Halley was a former textile operative. Fanny Ames mainly inspected the growing number of large stores in Boston, while Mary Halley mainly inspected the numerous textile mills in the state. In our paper, drawing on our complementary backgrounds in labor and women’s history, we analyze the annual reports of these two inspectors from the first decade of their service, in order to compare their differing impressions of the employees and employers they encountered, as well as their conception of their own role and status in society. In addition, using contemporary legislative and executive branch documents, we discuss the Inspection Department’s expectations of women inspectors’ role in factory inspection, and how this is related to the types of protective legislation that the department administered.

Susan Porter Benson, in her book Counter Cultures, noted that in the 1890s there was widespread criticism of the conditions under which the employees–mainly white, native-born, working class women–worked in department stores. In particular, there was a common belief that saleswomen were in special peril of becoming prostitutes due to their continuous contact with male customers and employees while working. Fanny Ames’ reports reflect these prevailing worries and beliefs. She constantly expresses concern over the “moral surroundings” of the working women she encounters, while forcefully drawing distinctions between proper and improper “associations” between the sexes at the worksite. Moreover, she makes a clear distinction between the “general high character” of the native women working in stores and the “half-savage” immigrants of the mill towns. Ames views herself as one of the many civilizing forces in America working to change these immigrants.

Mary Halley, on the other hand, makes no judgments about the “respectability” or “savagery” of the workers she meets. She is, however, highly concerned about her image in the eyes of both employers and employees: something to which Ames never refers. Halley, throughout her reports, returns to the respect with which she is treated by both the workers and the managers with whom she comes into contact. She views herself much more as an arbitrator between the workers and their employers, rather than as a civilizing force.

During the Progressive Era, one of the constant demands of labor representatives regarding factory inspection was that more “practical men,” of working-class background, be appointed as factory inspectors. Our research shows, not unexpectedly, that this demand was well founded. Both Fanny Ames and Mary Halley found that their conception of their role, and their performance as inspectors, was shaped by their social background, and life experience. In turn, the laws that they enforced were also shaped by the expectations and concerns of the politically potent middle classes, as well as the demands of the workers directly involved.