Cohn on Harrison-Moore and Sandwell, 'In a New Light: Histories of Women and Energy'

Author: 
Abigail Harrison-Moore, R. W. Sandwell, eds.
Reviewer: 
Julie Cohn

Abigail Harrison-Moore, R. W. Sandwell, eds. In a New Light: Histories of Women and Energy. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2021. 242 pp. $37.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-228-00619-0; (e-book), ISBN 978-0-228-00756-2; $130.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-228-00618-3.

Reviewed by Julie Cohn (University of Houston) Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (October, 2022) Commissioned by Penelope K. Hardy (University of Wisconsin-La Crosse)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57974

In a New Light: Histories of Women and Energy, edited by Abigail Harrison Moore and R. W. Sandwell, offers a collection of essays focused on how women shaped the fossil fuel energy transition from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century in Canada, England, Ireland, Scotland, and Germany. As the coeditors argue, the book’s aim is to restore women to the history of energy, from which they have been sorely missing over the past five decades. Indeed, as I read the book, I kept saying to myself, “Of course women were part of this story,” which underscores why In a New Light makes such an important contribution to the growing literature on energy transitions around the world. Of course, women were part of the story, but they have not been as much a part of the documented history.

For energy historians, finding the women has been challenging when we look in all the usual places. There are few in the technical literature, fewer in the popular histories, a handful in photographs of significant energy events, and the occasional appearance in archives. If energy’s stories are focused on evolving access to fuels for light, heat, and motion, and the technologies that render those sources useful, the key characters, by and large, are male. If the stories encompass the businesses, laws, and standards that facilitated transitions from one fuel source to another and encouraged development of new technologies—especially networked technologies—again men appear far more often than women. Historians have excluded women from the record by their choice of topic, their selection of evidence, and their focus on economic activity as the framework in which energy transitions took place. The contributors to In a New Light attempt to expand the focus, introduce new methodologies, identify different historical sources, and extract alternative perspectives on where, when, and why energy choices were made. They turn the reader’s gaze toward homes and other settings in which women were the predominant agents of change—whether singularly or in concert with their spouses. The collection of essays, though narrowly determined by regional focus and time frame, offers scholars a guidebook for how to take a fresh approach to energy history and bring more than half the population back into the narrative.

In the opening chapter, Ruth Sandwell lays out historiographies of both energy and gender for the regions under focus. This excellent review of how the field of energy history emerged, who wrote the narratives, and why women are, for the most part, left out establishes the context in which the volume’s contributors completed their work. As she explains, scholars have seen energy transitions in terms of technological innovations and economic expansions. Relying on E. A. Wrigley’s multidecade publications regarding England’s energy transitions, Sandwell ties In a New Light’s investigation to the shift from locally bounded activities that relied on organic energy resources to geographically unbounded activities that relied on abundant, extractable, transportable, and transmissible energy resources—in other words, fossil fuels. The nature of this shift drew attention to the technologies and economies of industrialization, which in turn forefronts the work of men. While some scholars have attended to the consumer side of the energy equation, few have treated the home like a technological “black box” to be opened and explored for clues to how women adopted, rejected, adapted, exploited, or made peace with new energy resources. In a parallel analysis, Sandwell examines the well-researched body of literature encompassing women’s studies, gender studies, and domestic histories. Here she finds detailed analyses of the domestic sphere, the agency of women, and the nature of social evolution during the same time frame, but few links back to the energy story, with Ruth Schwartz Cowan’s 1983 More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave being the important, and baseline-setting, exception. Sandwell argues, quite successfully, that the historiographic trend to divide society into two spheres of action—the female sphere of unpaid and low-paid work in the home and the male sphere of paid work and industry—has contributed to the opacity of women’s places in energy history. Her historiographic set-up allows the ensuing chapters to complement each other, despite quite different stories, sources, and locations.

In the remaining seven chapters of the book, Sandwell and six other scholars follow an arc from candlelight in nineteenth-century British homes to the electrification of rural Scottish homes in the mid- to late twentieth century. In between, the authors introduce the readers to a variety of methodological approaches that are key to shifting the focus away from industrial archives, patent records, inventor’s personal papers, and technical journals. To find women, they demonstrate, one must look in the interstices and behind the curtains. Through careful study of catalogues, court reports, and advertisements in chapter 2, for example, Karen Sayer discovers the women who procured, lit, and tended candles to light homes—both safely and otherwise. Sayer notes that because humans used candlelight for so many centuries—and still do—it is “inherently ancient and archaic,” and its history is “perhaps simply less spectacular” than the stories sought by historians (p. 50). Yet she argues that who made and used the candles, which source of fuel they chose, and how they handled those lights within the home reflected the shifting social, economic, and gendered relations of society. As she illustrates through several microhistories, there are continuities as well as transitions in energy history, and by looking carefully at the gendered space of the home, one sees the importance of women’s choices in energy use, management, conservation, and social status.

Ruth Sandwell picks up the thread in chapter 3, which addresses the very specific fears expressed by women as they faced introduction of new energy technologies into their rural Canadian homes. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, women danced a tango with the fire hazards of kerosene lamps and creosote in stovepipes, with the explosive character of kerosene itself, and with the diminished air quality associated with gas leaks. Importantly, Sandwell uncovers her stories within a variety of newspapers, trade journals, pamphlets, medical journals, and publications related to women’s clubs and other activities. Her examples point to the wealth of detail available to the intrepid historian who looks for women and their interaction with energy technologies in untapped sources. She successfully introduces the reader not only to the fears and anxieties associated with shifts in energy technologies—many of which were shared by men as well—but also to the ambiguity in the role women played during energy transitions. They often simultaneously embraced the new, which promised relief from hard labor and health benefits to the home, and resisted the transition, which posed so many potential harms to their families.

In late nineteenth-century London, middle-class women did not have to act alone when making decisions about interior lighting. In the book’s third chapter, Abigail Harrison Moore introduces three women who offered decorating services and advice guides to their peers when they faced questions about gas lighting, electrical lighting, and the best way to create healthy and aesthetically pleasing interior spaces in their homes. As an art historian and professor of museum studies, Harrison Moore brings a visual perspective to the fore. She makes good use of her sources—the publications of Agnes and Rhoda Garrett, England’s first professional female interior decorators, and of Mary Eliza Haweis, an advice writer and suffragist—to discover how women became agents of change. With reproductions of images from the Garrett and Garrett book Suggestions for House Decoration in Painting, Woodwork and Furniture (1876), Harrison Moore shows the reader how women idealized the lighting of a middle-class home. Further, Harrison Moore underscores women’s ambivalence toward fuels and sources of interior lighting as she contrasts the recommendations of the Garretts (centrally provided gas lighting) and Mrs. Haweis (new electrical lights). Harrison Moore—citing Rachel Plotnik, who has written about electric push buttons—describes the Garretts and Haweis as “electronic mediators” who bridged the world of evolving lighting technologies and the world of domestic gatekeepers (mostly women) during this energy transition.[1] Notably, in his 1995 book Cities of Light and Heat: Domesticating Gas and Electricity in Urban America, Mark H. Rose identified a similar set of actors, whom he called “agents of diffusion.”[2] Rose, however, focused on the men who dispatched educators and demonstrators to persuade women to adopt electrical technologies in their homes, rather than the individuals who carried out this work.

Graeme Gooday, in chapter 4, further explores the theme of women mediating between the growing world of networked energy technologies and the evolving home front, albeit in an entirely different way. Gooday highlights women who worked for electrical utilities, advocated for technically oriented women, aided their electrical engineering husbands in their professional work, or trained women to become electrical experts within their homes. Gooday highlights the importance of the Electrical Association for Women, which produced the Electrical Handbook for Women (1934), essentially a textbook to help women become experts in the craft of using electricity. As the authors of the previous chapters explored, Gooday again underscores the uncertainty and unease of the homemaker with respect to new energy technologies. The reluctance of many homemakers to adopt electrical technologies was a critical challenge to electrification in early twentieth-century England. He argues that knowledgeable women were most effective at persuading other women to bring electric power and light into their homes. Without their efforts, the male-dominated power companies would have been spinning their turbines in vain.

By evoking memories of delicious brown bread and extremely difficult wash day chores in chapter 4, Sorcha O’Brien also introduces the conflicted role of rural Irish women in adopting electricity during the mid-twentieth century. O’Brien participated directly in the collection of oral histories from women who could recall the attitudes of their mothers and grandmothers as the Rural Electrification Scheme urged expansion of centralized power production and distribution throughout the country. This chapter describes the complex emotional side of a seemingly cut-and-dried technological transition and places women, once again, at the center of the story. As O’Brien illustrates, there were generational, gendered, and economic aspects to the ways rural women responded to new sources of energy, many eagerly desiring the promised relief from drudgery while navigating resistance from budget-minded husbands. She deftly frames the roles of memory and nostalgia in developing an accurate history of electrification in Ireland and elucidates the agency of women who, through their gendered economic and domestic roles, determined how quickly households joined central power distribution systems. Importantly, O’Brien illustrates how to use twenty-first century interviews to uncover hidden twentieth-century stories of electrical women.

Moving away from the Anglophone world of the North Atlantic, Petra Dolata introduces yet another angle on the complexity of women and electrification. In Germany’s Ruhr Valley, during the mid-twentieth century, Dolata finds women defiantly wearing clean white garments, supporting their coal-mining husbands, and advocating to keep mines open, all while protesting air pollution. In this case study, domestic use of coal for heating and cooking declined, while industrial use increased, then declined. Dolata mined the resources of a 1980s everyday history project in the Ruhr region and a more recent digital memory project (2015-18) to locate the voices of Ruhr women. Within images and interviews, she found the ambiguity that recurs throughout the collected essays in In a New Light. In this case, women were direct consumers of coal and electricity through their household work and were aides to the producers of coal-fired energy through their support of laboring men. Their very work itself—washing the miners’ clothes and cleaning their own homes—served as a continuous protest against the pollution produced by coal extraction and coal burning. The Ruhr Valley’s energy transitions created paradoxes for the people involved, both by virtue of their gendered work and by virtue of their class positions. As did O’Brien, Dolata demonstrates the value of memory and oral history in deepening an understanding of the experiences of the relatively recent past.

In the book’s closing chapter, Vanessa Taylor proposes that the growing energy industries of England, and especially northern Scotland, identified women as necessary agents of change. From the particular (a 1963 essay by electricity demonstrator Edna Petrie) to the general (national statistics for specific types of energy production and use as well as workforce participation by gender), Taylor weaves together evidence that reveals women as instrumental in multiple transitions. Women promoted electricity, gas, and solid fuels, often in competition with each other. They found paid and volunteer work as mediators for all three industries. They advocated for improved standards of living, dependent upon networked energy resources, for themselves, their families, and other women. And they moved out of the house and into the workforce as they adopted new energy technologies into their homes. Taylor argues that these roles contributed also to the higher carbon footprint of British women today. She seeks not culpability, but comprehension of the complexity of women’s participation in the adoption of particular energy technologies and regimes.

While the arguments and case studies of the contributors to In a New Light add depth and breadth to the history of industrialization, electrification, and accelerated energy resource use, the bibliography is equally as valuable. The collection of cited archives, government papers, newspapers, magazines, periodicals, published debates, websites, and interviews serves as both a roadmap and a database for historians interested in adding less-heard voices to the stories of our energy past. The published literature, much of which serves as primary source material for this book, covers a wide range of topics, from gender history to gendered histories of energy and from contemporaneous accounts of industrialization to contemporary perspectives on energy transitions. The contributors are to be commended for their creative approaches to finding source material that elevates the multiple, conflicted, and essential roles of women within energy stories of the past two centuries.

The contributors to In a New Light all raise questions about the energy future. The essays illustrate the anxiety and ambiguity felt by many when asked to change their habits, their duties, and their societal roles in order to use newfangled energy technologies. This, the authors suggest, should serve as a caution for twenty-first-century citizens. The stories of how women navigated the new world of industrialized and networked energy systems indicate agency and responsibility across societies—just because the domestic domain was designated female did not exempt it from a role in the fossil fuel transition. We will all be agents of the next energy transition, for better or for ill. This book is a worthwhile read for those interested in understanding how we reached our energy-intensive present and how we might proceed into our—hopefully sustainable—future.

Notes

[1]. Plotnik, “At the Interface: The Case of the Electric Push Button, 1880–1923,” Technology and Culture 53, no. 4 (2012): 815-45.

[2]. Rose, Cities of Light and Heat: Domesticating Gas and Electricity in Urban America (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995).

Citation: Julie Cohn. Review of Harrison-Moore, Abigail; Sandwell, R. W., eds., In a New Light: Histories of Women and Energy. H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews. October, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57974

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