Spotlight on the NUT donation: “Why electricity need not be a closed book for girls by Miss Caroline Haslett”

ELECTRICITYLast winter we received a wonderful donation from the National Union of Teachers (NUT), which included 380 pamphlet boxes containing material published by the NUT itself and many other organisations operating in the areas of education, children and families.

 

Over the last year, we have checked and sorted these resources, discovering many interesting publications during the process. Among these, we have picked a few ‘gems’ and decided to share what we have learnt about each one. Today is the turn of Why electricity need not be a closed book for girls by Miss Caroline Haslett, C.B.E., Companion I.E.E. (Director ,The Electrical Association for Women). This was an Address delivered to the meeting of Domestic Science Teachers at the Portsmouth Conference of the N.U.T. 1937.

In general scientific, engineering and mechanical subjects were not taught to girls. However during the First World War when women, out of necessity, worked in these areas, many found they enjoyed the subjects and had a natural aptitude for them. In 1919 the Women‘s Engineering Society (WES) was set up to maintain and further the position of women in the fields of science and engineering.

It is important to remember that even in 1937 many women did not work outside the home, this perhaps goes some way towards explaining the emphasis placed on the use of electricity in a domestic setting. Girls would be aware of the influence of electricity in ever day life because it was used “in industry, commerce, transport, telephone and wireless communication and in that great further extension of television”.  The novelty of electricity in the home is highlighted by the fact that a reliable national electricity supply was only provided by the National Grid completed in 1933 as part of the Electricity (Supply) Act 1926.

Household tasks of washing and ironing clothes, cleaning floors, washing-up, laying of fires and carrying coal were dreary, time consuming and tiring. Caroline Haslett wanted the housewife be able to use electrical appliances so “that while performing her household duties with greater ease and efficiency, she will have time to extend her interests to cultural and aesthetic pursuits”.

The intended audience of Domestic Science Teachers was an apt one because as Caroline Haslett said “the book of electricity cannot be kept shut to girls but it remains to teach them to read it intelligently”. Help was available to teachers from the ‘Electrical Association for Women’ (1924-1986) (EAW) which was formed to educate women (and others) about “all aspects of electrical technology and its domestic use”. The E.A.W. provided wall charts, booklets and books, organised lectures and visits and Summer Schools for Domestic Science Teachers. Teachers could study for the E.A.W. Certificate and Diploma in electrical home craft. In general women could take advantage of new career opportunities by studying for the E.A.W.’s Diploma for Demonstrators and Saleswomen. Some women even travelled around the country in caravans to spread the advantages of the use of electricity as widely as possible.

The author of this address, Miss Caroline Haslett, is a fascinating woman. She was born in Worth, West Sussex in 1895. An early interest in engineering was sparked by helping her father who was a railway signal fitter and activist for the co-operative movement. An understanding of how tiring housework could be was gained from observing her own mother. After leaving school Caroline took a secretarial course and became a clerk with the Cochrane Boiler Company. During the First World War Caroline gained some engineering experience at Cochrane’s in London and at Annan in Dumfriesshire. In 1919 she left to become the first secretary of the WES and the first editor of the Women Engineer Journal. In 1924 Caroline co-founded and became the first director of the E.A.W. In 1925 the WES, and Caroline, gained wider recognition when they organised a conference at Wembley in association with the First International Conference of Women in Science, Industry and Commerce. Haslett was the sole woman delegate to the World Power Conference in Berlin in1930. Electric light helped to prevent domestic accidents and had a positive psychological benefit which was important to Caroline who, in 1932, was appointed chair of the Home Safety Committee of the National Safety First Association (the forerunner of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents).It was an appointment that, during the Second World War, led to Caroline being the only woman member ( and safety expert) on the 20-person committee convened by the Institute of Electrical Engineers (IEE) to look at the requirements for electrical installations in a post-war Britain.

Caroline’s received official recognition for her services to women when in 1931 she was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. She was elected a Companion of the Institute of Electrical Engineers (IEE) in 1932 and for her work during the War she was created a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. In the same year,1947, she was honoured to become the first woman member of the British Electrical Authority(BEA). Despite her busy professional life Caroline remained a keen amateur botanist and in 1952 a white iris was named Dame Caroline in her honour.

Today Caroline Haslett is remembered by the Women’s Engineering Society’s (WES) Caroline Haslett Lecture and there is a Caroline Haslett Primary School in Milton Keynes. It is a sobering thought that despite the hard work of pioneers such as Caroline Haslett there is still an ongoing struggle for girls and women who are interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects at school and career choices.

This item, like all the others included in this donation, is currently uncatalogued, although this will be the next step in our project. In the meantime, if you’d like to find out more about the contents of the donation, please check our LibGuide.

 

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