The Virtues of Vice: The Lowell Mill Girl Debate & Contemporary Feminist Ethics

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Virtue and vice remain at the margins of feminist conceptual analysis although both establish a dualism that denies women full citizenship. To make this argument, this analysis explores the historical case of the Lowell mill girls – the first nearly all-female labour force in the United States between 1826 and 1850. Their public debate illustrates how virtue aligns some women with the economic and political status quo while society affiliates those who challenge its dominant beliefs with vice. This moral location reveals the ‘virtues of vice’ or the political benefits that women may derive from vice which places them outside traditional moral and political discourse, enabling them to question existing moral paradigms, consider alternatives, and politically organize against the status quo. As such, the Lowell mill girl debate can inform contemporary feminist theory by raising serious questions about virtue and suggesting how vice opens up a critical space for ideological innovation, referred to here as a moral middle ground, that may result in a more democratic, feminist ethics.


Copyright 2006 Sage

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Feminist Theory

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Boryczka, Jocelyn M. (April 2006). “The Virtues of Vice: The Lowell Mill Girl Debate & Contemporary Feminist Ethics,” Feminist Theory: An International Interdisciplinary Journal, 7 (1), pp. 49-67.



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