The Proletarian Fantastic

November 14, 2020   •   By Mark Soderstrom

The Factory Witches of Lowell

C. S. Malerich

“‘I’M LOOKING FOR the Factory Girls’ Union,’ she would say, as if the words themselves were an incantation.”


In the last several decades, a growing number of fantasy works, often written by authors who traditionally might well have been excluded from the guarded garden of the genre, examine the lives and spirit of laborers and their movements over time. Anthologies like Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History, and many writers — including Sarah Prineas, Sunny Moraine, Sofia Samatar, and C. S. Malerich — have recently been offering a labor-centric, collective, historical approach to what might be called “the proletarian fantastic.”

In her fantasy novella The Factory Witches of Lowell, Malerich offers a tale from working women’s point of view, but with a twist: as Charles Stross uses the fantastic to literalize neoliberal forces in his SF novel Neptune’s Brood, Malerich deploys magic to elucidate multiple facets of political economy. To quote scholar Daniel Baker, this book “ruptur[es] reality to re-imagine the then for the benefit of the now and the nows yet to pass.”

According to the AFL-CIO, 1,500 white female factory workers formed the Factory Girls Association (FGA), the first US women’s labor union, in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1836. The workers took their campaign from the mills to the streets to demand better working and living conditions, and Malerich captures the FGA’s history and struggles in her novella. At that time, Lowell was a technological and industrial marvel in the United States, thanks to the espionage of Francis Cabot Lowell and Kirk Boott, who each purloined British mill plans; various Boston investors then installed a series of water-powered industrial mills producing woven cotton cloth.

Against these men, Malerich juxtaposes the factory workers: white New England farmers’ daughters, mostly in their teens and 20s. Facing wage cuts and rising living costs, these young women join together to form a union (called the Factory Girls’ Union [FGU] in the book). The two main characters are Judith Whittier, the main union organizer, and her companion and budding romantic interest, Hannah Pickering, a Seer and witch. Their conversations and conflicts expound on many of the themes at the heart of the story as they form and refine their radical subjectivities.

From the opening pages, Malerich uses the contrivance of magic to manifest social and political issues that often remain unmarked, and to articulate the power exchange within the FGU’s economic and political situation. While the bosses have built the mills with the magic of capital, the FGU plan resistance with the magic of solidarity. The rules of such magic engage questions of agency and ownership: should the mills’ machines belong to the men who paid for them to be built with stolen plans, or do the machines belong to the workers? On the one side is the “papercraft” of laws, ownership, and contracts; on the other is the reality of tending the machines 13 hours a day, six days a week, giving one’s sweat, blood, and life. Can these workers claim rights to the machines they feed with extravagant sacrifice, just to spin cotton into thread and weave thread into cloth that the owners will turn into gold to keep for themselves?

Silvia Federici would appreciate how the young women draw their magic from the tools of social reproduction and women’s embodiment — what one young woman derides as “kitchen magic.” But the workplace itself places demands upon the women’s bodies, including having the workers use their mouths to suck new thread into their shuttles — what they describe as “kissing.” This osculation is anything but romantic, though: every “kiss” also bears lint to the worker’s lungs. In such a context, embodied magic furnishes the workers’ resistance, and it works within symbolic parameters. As Judith remarks, “Hair is the perfect vessel for oaths of friendship and camaraderie. Blood for family. But spit […] is for the passions.”

In this spirit, the women of the FGU create solidarity by binding themselves together magically in a mutualistic hair-weaving ritual; later, by all spitting in the mill’s headrace, the women use magic to incarnate their links with the machines. Malerich contrasts the women’s embodied power with the conceit of Cartesian discipline held by the mill owners. In the same way that magic makes tangible the relations between capital, our bodies, and machines, these rituals materialize the communal relationships between our bodies, each other, and the places we inhabit.

Even though operating the machines provides the young women with a modicum of independence, the machines are not “faithful paramours.” They drain the workers’ vitality, health, and life. Between lint from “kissing,” the cotton dust in the air, and the smoke of the whale oil lamps, longtime Lowell workers like Hannah (and the historical workers) developed byssinosis, a cough parallel to miners’ silicosis. Just as the process of servicing and operating the machines is certainly an inimical force within workers, the FGU members are correct to feel that their essence inhabits the “kissed” machines. As Hannah observes, “[s]o many times, standing in the work room, I’ve blinked to See my own self leaking away and filling up my looms. It’s like watching my breath sucked away.”

Following a straight-up Marxian principle, labor and autonomy seep into the machines and the worker is consumed. The Factory Witches of Lowell illustrates how life itself is depleted in the creation of profit, and the novella gives her workers a way to call in that marker:

“You plan to bewitch the machines, to be part of the strike?” Hannah’s voice rasped.

[Judith replies] “Why not? […] Thirteen hours a day, six days a week, we tend them, we feed them, we kiss that damn shuttle! They’re full of us, aren’t they?”

Hannah turned away. “Of course they are, the greedy things.”

Using this connection, the young women ensure (via the spitting spell) that the machines can’t run without the FGU workers. The factory won’t respond to scab laborers’ attempts to operate it. After stopping the machines, one of the strikers declares: “[Y]ou won’t free yourselves from the laborers of Lowell. […] We’re in the mills and in the river, and we’ll get ours back again if it’s the last thing we do.”

Here is one of the places the novella shines. Malerich heightens Karl Marx’s formulation of embodied labor and dead labor into superreality, using the water in the mill’s headrace for the former and for the latter using machines, which physically sap the worker in such a way that Marx himself compared them to vampires.

Fantasy writers have been exploring such questions of labor and political economics in various ways. In her novel Ash & Bramble, Sarah Prineas details the sweatshop conditions of the fairy godmother’s factory where the coaches, gowns, and slippers originate — and how the workers and fairy tale characters must learn to form solidarity to achieve a successful revolt. In her short story “Across the Seam,” Sunny Moraine sets Baba Yaga as a chaotic guide for a young miner’s explosive gender transformation in the context of the violent 1897 massacre of strikers in Latimer, Pennsylvania. Sofia Samatar’s short story “Ogres of East Africa” follows a labor action whereby African guides of different cultures form solidarity to “guide” their white hunter boss to an ugly fate. Work in this vein shows that fantasy often provides tools to deal with the unnoticed and the unspeakable.

One of the most striking historical themes that the book addresses is the role of slavery in the industrial revolution of New England. Malerich’s novella acknowledges both the characters’ awareness of their own complicity in the slavery system and their distress at its toll. Hannah references the role of slavery in supplying the mills with cotton and therefore giving the young mill workers their livelihoods. “[L]ook at those bales of cotton you see floating there. Whose genius fills those? Whose blood and sweat?” As The 1619 Project and many other sources show, slavery was as important economically to the white Northern United States as it was to the white South, however “free” the North insisted it was.

As a way to displace dominant perspectives, The Factory Witches of Lowell again uses magic, this time to expose the terrifying process in which slavery robbed Black people’s essential puissance. In one passage, Hannah remembers Seeing a slave auction: “One young man was standing on the block when I shut my eyes — his soul shone orange embers— and the planters made their bids, one after another, until they’d conjured a thing that swallowed those burning embers in its mouth.”

Through the license granted by the fantastic, Malerich incarnates the malevolent social power of the dehumanizing system that enforces the ownership of one person by another. She goes further, to emphasize that Northern US industry depended not just on slaves but on the profound oppression that brutally suppressed slaves’ magic for retribution: “If witchcraft is all so simple as you imagine, did you never wonder that the enslaved wretches who pick that cotton don’t lay hexes on the whole White race?” This picture is oversimplified, seeming to deny all agency to people who exerted agency consistently in ways large and small. But having a young white woman in 1836 Lowell react to slavery with such vivid horror does have an historical basis, though an incomplete one.

The women at Lowell (in the novella and historically) often experienced factory work as a break between their lives under the patriarchal control of their fathers and the impending control of the husbands in their future. This life and work experience may have given them a different appreciation of slavery from their male (or bourgeois) counterparts. Historically the Lowell women do appear to have objected to slavery as an institution, even while using slaves’ status as a bargaining argument.

As the young women all ignore the factory’s summons bell, Judith proclaims to Hannah that “[o]ur grandfathers didn’t shed blood at Bunker Hill so we could be slaves to a bell!” The remark is an example of white women workers claiming freedom as a revolutionary inheritance amid the ubiquitous backdrop of Black chattel slavery versus white liberty. Still, Alice Kessler-Harris points out that the first all-women’s abolition society in the United States would form in Lowell shortly after the 1836 strike, while in the novella Hannah speaks “with the conviction of an abolitionist.” Thus some of the complexity of the relationship between the free and the unfree in US history emerges in Malerich’s prose.

Not to give too much away, but the women of Lowell fare better in Malerich’s book than the historical women did. For them, no spells rebuffed the replacement workers that Boott and his Boston brethren hired. Even the novella offers no escape to a happily ever after: it closes with Judith and Hannah recognizing that to keep what they have won will require sisterhood, solidarity, vigilance, and, of course, their union (in both senses). This ending is an acknowledgment that struggle must continue to keep what workers have gained.

In our difficult political world where livelihoods take lives and laborers struggle for basic recognition, this tale about young women forming solidarity to win justice and equality is a much-needed tonic. Its modern reflection on and fantastic exploration of workers’ lives shows how powerfully fantasy can enrich readers’ understanding of the political and economic forces at work even now. At the last, though, one of Malerich’s most adroit choices is knowing when to put the fantastic down. The end has two working women living life without Sight, within the quotidian magic of requited love, backed by the power in their union. In its close examination of the forces in workers’ lives, the meaning of labor, and struggles for solidarity, C. S. Malerich’s book The Factory Witches of Lowell is an apt contribution to the proletarian fantastic.


Mark Soderstrom has been a professional blacksmith, carpenter, labor organizer, and musician. He is now an associate professor in the MALS and Work and Labor Policy programs of SUNY-Empire State College.