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February 26, 2023

Envisioning Women’s Electric Future

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

For EPOCH Magazine, Senior Policy Associate Victoria Plutshack writes about the "startlingly modern visions" that Eleanor Roosevelt and members of the Electrical Association for Women had for women’s roles in the newly electric world:

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.