I would not leave thee, dear beloved place,
A crown, a sceptre, or a throne to grace;
To be a queen—the Nation’s flag unfurl—
A thousand times I’d be a Factory Girl!
An Address to Napiers Dockyard
Years ago while working on a project for college, I ran across a book where astrophysicists debated the existence of God (don’t worry, I’m not going to write about that). I happened to notice they were all male. Are there female astrophysicists? Of course there are, and here’s a list. For whatever reason, though, not a single woman was represented in that book.
This was my first realization of how women are written out of history, even with significant achievements. I thought of this again when I saw the movie Hidden Figures. Would my life have been different, I wondered, if I saw the success and achievements of women at an early age? When I was growing up, I had no idea women, let alone women of color, used mathematical expertise to launch rockets.
So when I discovered my great-great grandmother had been removed from the family history, I wasn’t surprised. Jane the Factory Girl, which I am getting closer to completion, is a fictionalized attempt to bring her back into the family…and to also pay tribute to the women who worked in the mills and factories, whose stories have also been erased.
While doing research for the novel I fell in love with the poetry of Ellen Johnston…and along the way gained exposure to a wealth of Scottish poetry written by women. Never heard of her? Of course not. And yet, in her lifetime, she was well known and popular as a poet.
Ellen began working in factories at either age 11 or 13, not uncommon at the time. She had little schooling, enough to read and write. She later gave birth to an illegitimate daughter, and put the child in her mother’s care because she had to keep working.
After being fired from a mill, Johnston successfully sued for severance. However, this action caused her to be blackballed.
As a poet, Johnston published a number of poems in newspapers under the name Factory Girl. In 1867 she published a collection called Autobiographies, Poems, Songs, and The Factory Girl. A second edition (that deleted references to her daughter) was published in 1869.
Ellen’s fate is unknown. A woman named Helen Johnston died in a poorhouse in 1874, but this may or may not be her. Rumors suggested she married or moved and changed her name. She was known to be in ill health, however, from her years in the mills, so the latter theory is not likely. It’s more, perhaps, what we wish were true. Instead, like too many women, Ellen Johnston just disappeared.
It is a tribute to Johnston that each chapter of Jane the Factory Girl begins with a poem. Where possible, I use Johnston’s lines. Where not, most of the poetry is written by women (I threw in Stevenson and Burns, so men aren’t entirely ignored).
Here again, though, the only female poet I had heard of before working on this novel was Elizabeth Barrett Browning, whose stunning poem The Cry of the Children still haunts me. Others include Elizabeth Melville, Mrs. G. G. Richardson, Elizabeth Hamilton, and more (lots of Elizabeths here, I just noticed).
Hopefully Jane the Factory Girl will not only restore Jane’s standing in the family history, but will also bring other women to life whose work and achievements had previously disappeared.