Envisioning Women’s Electric Future
Victoria Plutshack | Duke University
In the wake of the US entry into the Second World War, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wrote a memo to advisor Harry Hopkins that outlined a bold new vision for society: a society in which women could take over the work of the men who had gone off to war while also maintaining a happy, healthy home life. In her mind, it was crucial that the government step in to support local daycares and schools, chains of restaurants near factories, food cooperatives, and maternity leave. It was critical, she believed, that women maintained a sense of home life, that they were kept healthy, and that women were not tired out by splitting their labour between offices, factories, and homes.
On a single line she writes, offhand: “I think we should establish community laundries.”
At the time of the memo, 31 May 1942, electricity had reached eighty-one per cent of Americans but electric washing machine ownership was between forty and fifty per cent. Public laundries were still rare in the 1930s, so most women had to wash their clothing – and their family’s clothing - by hand. Eleanor Roosevelt recognised that women could not work five to six days a week and do the sheer amount of domestic labour expected of them. Her solution? Labour-saving, time-saving electrical appliances.
Roosevelt was not the only person thinking about the future that electricity could bring women. Across the pond, about two-thirds of British homes were wired for electricity by the end of the 1930s but the use of electricity was limited. Appliances (and homes!) came in a range of voltages, customers knew little about the costs and keeping of new devices, and there was low awareness of what new electrical technologies could do for women. In 1924, members of the Women’s Engineering Society founded the Electrical Association for Women (EAW) – to unlock women’s electric futures.
In both Roosevelt’s letters and the journals of the EAW we can see the startlingly modern visions that these advocates had for women’s roles in the newly electric world. Yet, while some of these visions came to fruition, others have still not come to pass for the energy sector, which remains male-dominated to this day.
Women unshackled from the home
We can see in Roosevelt’s memo that she had a firm grasp on what kept women tethered to the home. Their daily chores of cooking, cleaning, and childcare were critical to the functioning of the household, but time consuming and tiring. Her vision of the future was full of shared labour and shared benefits, from cooperative food programmes to community laundries. This cooperative vision should come as no great surprise, as it was in keeping with the philosophical alignment of the New Deal, crafted by her husband Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his cohort of bureaucrats and advisors.
Indeed, rural America was already relying on cooperatives to electrify farming communities. In order to reach more isolated parts of the country, the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) offered long-term loans and technical support to rural communities who wanted to band together to create electric cooperatives. For American farmers, it was the first time they could own a radio or a television.
It was also an opportunity for women. Roosevelt’s memo made it clear that war effort or no war effort, women were going to be a part of the future workforce: “I am not at all sure that everybody in the future may not have to justify themselves either by working with their heads or working with their hands.”
Women working with their heads or their hands required help at home, and Roosevelt shared this vision with the women of Great Britain. In the autumn of 1941, Roosevelt invited Caroline Haslett, Director of the British EAW to lunch with her. She was curious about the work of the EAW, which at the time was trying to educate women on the wonders of electricity. In an article entitled “Women of the Two Great Democracies,” the EAW summarises Roosevelt’s vision for the working woman:
“[Roosevelt] feels that after the war it would be useful to have a joint conference of Home Economics women from America and Great Britain to discuss kitchen planning, and the possibility of giving more labour-saving appliances to the working woman. She also thought that in many working-class homes there would be neither the space nor the money to pay for vacuum cleaning and washing machines, and that it should be possible to arrange for, say, every six families to share these appliances.”
Haslett and her team at the EAW may not have believed in communal appliance ownership, but they certainly believed in the power of electricity for freeing the working woman. Their journal The Electrical Age regularly featured opportunities for household appliances to save women time and effort. A few years before Haslett’s meeting with Roosevelt, The Electrical Age published an article on “The Bachelor Girl’s Electrical Home,” an exhibition flat designed to show off what the future could look like. It was framed like this:
“It is obvious that the woman whose energies are largely taken up with her professional duties must be freed almost entirely from household worries. What better servant for her than Electricity?”
The flat was state-of-the-art. It had everything; built-in furniture, automatic closet lighting, hassle-free fireplaces and top-of-the-line electric cooking appliances. The woman of the future worked all day and came home to clean, sleek modernity.
Women building the energy transition
But the EAW did not just imagine that women would benefit from labour-saving appliances, they also strongly believed that women would build that electrical future themselves. In that same issue is another article, entitled “Electrical Careers for Girls: Electric Canteen Cooking and Management.” Regular contributors to the magazine included Margaret M. Partridge, who ran her own electrical consulting company, M. Partridge & Co., Domestic Engineers, and wrote about the trials and tribulations of rural electrification. Even early issues included advertisements from electrical companies, like the Glasgow Corporation Electricity Department, specifically calling for women to join the industry, although still in the context of women’s special knowledge of the home.
The EAW’s interest in women’s role in the energy sector arose from its own background. Membership of the EAW overlapped significantly with its older sister organisation, the Women’s Engineering Society (WES). The WES was originally created by society women who had found that the First World War opened doors for them in industries previously closed to women. Having got a taste of what engineering could offer them, they fought tirelessly for women’s inclusion in fields such as aviation, the automobile industry and electrical engineering.
Opening doors for women in a male-dominated industry required more than magazine advertisements, it also required networking. In October 1941, Haslett embarked on a seven-week tour of Canada and the United States with the goal of sharing the Society’s vision of women’s participation in our technological future. She was, at the time, also the Adviser on Women’s Training to the Ministry of Labour. In addition to press conferences, tours of industrial centres and meetings with labour officials, Haslett spoke at the famous “Friendship Dinner” – a veritable who’s who of prominent women in American politics and society. Attendees ranged from Frances Perkins, Secretary of State for Labor, to Eloise Davison, Director of the New York Herald Tribune Home Institute, who had started her career with the National Electric Light Association and the Tennessee Valley Authority. This was not a dinner of women asking for permission to enter these sectors or take on these great roles; this was a network of highly placed women in their fields working to make that possible for other women.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s presence at the Friendship Dinner was a reminder of her constant efforts to put women’s participation front and centre in the New Deal. The REA already employed dozens of home economists focused on training farmers on the use of electrical equipment. Despite this, the REA struggled to engage women in leadership roles within the electric cooperatives.
Harry Slattery, head of the REA from 1939-1944, knew that this was a passion of Roosevelt’s. He regularly wrote to her, sharing clippings from the REA Newsletter that he believed she would find interesting. In 1939 he wrote to her expressly to share the story of Mrs Dorothy C. Riner of Adrian, Michigan who had been made Acting Superintendent of the Southern Michigan Electric Cooperative. Mrs Reiner had been employed as a bookkeeper when the cooperative started construction, but she made such a good impression on the cooperative members that she was elected when the previous Superintendent resigned. She and her daughter came to the office on her first day of work to find it filled with flowers. Slattery wrote: “It gives us special satisfaction as indicating that rural electrification may have opened the way to women for a new type of activity in public affairs.”
This was a future for women that both Roosevelt and Haslett were working towards, but it was a future that existed on the other side of a bigger struggle: the Second World War.
Post-war women & the electric future
Women’s participation in the war effort was an ever-present element of Haslett’s trip. The Friendship Dinner is recounted in an article entitled “Today’s Crisis – Tomorrow’s Challenge,” which ends with her speech, looking forward to a time after war in which women rebuild the world with electricity:
“We women of England are determined, when we rebuild our damaged cities and homes, that into those homes shall go all the best that science can give. The working housewife, who must be cook, nursemaid, laundry woman for a large family, must have her electric washing-machine, and other labour-saving devices. We shall want better planned homes, and guidance on what to do with our new-found leisure, and in all this we shall want the help and advice of American women.”
In her imagination of a post-war world, women were the ones re-building the cities of England, and in building back better, Haslett imagines electricity would be a woman’s helpmeet. She notes that, although America is likely to see its factories for appliances turned over to service in the war, after the war the women of the US and Great Britain can learn much about the electric future from each other. The diplomatic framing of this visit was not just Haslett’s inflated sense of self-importance; upon return to England, she was summoned for an audience with the Queen.
Their future, our present
Did these visions come to pass? Did electricity unshackle women from the drudgery of household labour and set her free in the marketplace? Did women really build the electric future with their own hands? It has been a mixed bag, honestly.
When men returned to their homes and jobs after World War II, women were encouraged back into the home, but they went reluctantly and not for long. Women really were able to juggle household requirements and paid work with the help of washing machines, dishwashers and microwaves. In fact, women represent over forty-six per cent of the labour force in the U.S. – a statistic that even Eleanor Roosevelt might not have imagined. The fact that it was women who dropped out of the workforce during the pandemic to attend to the care of children, family and home alludes to the social reality that was as true in 1942 as it is in 2023: domestic appliances help women because women are still the default caretakers of the domestic.
Within the energy industry, women are still wildly underrepresented. Latest figures from the International Renewable Energy Agency show that women make up twenty-two per cent of employees in the oil and gas industry and thirty-two per cent of workers in renewable energy. However, even in renewables, the majority are still found in administrative or non-STEM positions – positions that pay less and have less job security. The future has not been as collectivist as Eleanor Roosevelt might have hoped, nor as clearly built by the hands of women, but it has been shaped by their needs, in great part thanks to the efforts of the women of the REA and the EAW.
Further Reading List
Harrison Moore, Abigail, and R.W. Sandwell (eds), In a new light: histories of women and energy (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2021)
Schlup, Leonard C., and D. W. Whisenhunt (eds), It Seems to Me: Selected Letters of Eleanor Roosevelt (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001)
Jellison, Katherine, Entitled to power: farm women and technology, 1913-1963 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993)
Kline, Ronald R. Consumers in the country: technology and social change in rural America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000)
Victoria Plutshack is a qualitative social scientist, whose work focuses on energy, gender and technology change. She holds a PhD from the University of Cambridge and is a Senior Policy Associate at the James E. Rogers Energy Access Project at Duke University. Her recent work includes historical studies on gender, rural electrification and appliance campaigns in the US and Great Britain.