The Electrical Handbook for Women – a transformative 20th century text

by Graeme Gooday

Front cover for the Electrical Association for Women’s Electrical Handbook for Women (1934)

The Electrical Handbook for Women was an extraordinary and elegant work. It was first published in 1934 by the UK’s Electrical Association for Women (EAW), which had been set up in 1924 to promote the use of electrical gadgetry to reduce domestic drudgery. The EAW’s authoritative Electrical Handbook was eagerly read by thousands of its female lecturers and demonstrators employed to guide Britain’s homeworkers on electrically equipping their home.

Nothing like this book had previously been published in Britain for technically-minded women. It was so popular that 33,000 copies were sold in its first year alone, and it remained in print until the 1980s. What was it that made this book so popular? But then why was its final edition Essential Electricity: A User’s Guide not written specifically for women at all?

If we look at the front covers of successive editions of the Electrical Handbook for Women, we can see the assumptions about who this book was for, and how such assumptions changed over time.

Take first the elegant blue and grey front-cover used up to the fifth edition of 1950. It was designed by fashionable art-deco illustrator Ethel “Bip” Pares who chose to depict the EAW’s work in a pair of stylized long-fingered “feminine” hands cradling the armature of a dynamo.

This cleverly captures both a traditional view of women’s manual “care” and also women’s new role in promoting electrical technology in the home: it was their hands that would use the new ‘labour-saving’ electric cookers and dishwashers, and that demand would cause the dynamos in power stations to turn. 

The Electrical Handbook for Women was not, however, just a guide to electrical technologies to assist the (still presumptively) female domestic consumer. It was intended primarily to support thousands of women over several generations trained by the EAW to serve as expert lecturers and demonstrators on the new energy medium.

This new technical workforce epitomized the way that the EAW’s Handbook emerged out of both the collective expertise of its parent organisation the Women’s Engineering Society (WES, set up in 1919) and the financial patronage of the male-dominated electrical industry. In interwar Britain that industry desperately needed female allies to persuade cautious UK female consumers to adopt electricity and reduce or abandon their consumption of coal and coal-gas.

The Handbook’s editorial introduction by Caroline Haslett and Margaret Moir (two leading WES figures and also successive Directors of the EAW), cast their readers as ‘domestic electrical engineers’ who by rationalised usage of electrical ‘labour-saving’ devices might also pursue a feminist goal of independent careers.

This prospect was clearest in the Handbook’s first section of six chapters on “General Principles of Electricity” by one of WES’s early members, the University of London Mathematics graduate, Margaret Partridge.[1] She was an independent electrical engineer who set up and operated independent power stations round the UK. The fact that Ms Partridge held a prominent position as a lead technical author was a clear illustration of the authority that could be accomplished by a practising female engineer of energy supply.

The frontispiece and title page of the first edition of the Electrical Handbook for Women (1934)

Most of the book’s other eleven chapters were written by the EAW’s female technical staff on the Practical Domestic Applications of Electricity and the final section on Teaching and Demonstrating. Significantly male authors were only used for legal and installation matters, and to write about the less obviously labour-saving wireless radio set. At the end was an appendix listing thirteen pages of examination questions for readers to test their knowledge against the EAW’s formal qualifications in electrical housework.

Although dry in many respects, this book was a great hit. Haslett’s sister later reported that the Electrical Handbook was ‘an immediate success’ with some EAW members so devoted to it that they ‘slept with the book under their pillows.’ [2]

Significantly, in the next three editions of the book, from 1956 to 1971, the title changed to be The E.A.W. Electrical Handbook. This reflected the departure of both Moir (who had died in 1944) and Haslett, who had withdrawn from work on health grounds by 1956, dying in early 1957. The new EAW President, Mary George MBE, had authorised a clear withdrawal from the personality cult of Haslett and Moir, with the handbook’s authorship now just credited as the EAW itself.

Front cover of the sixth (1956) and seventh (1961) editions, the new title dropping reference to women

Under Mary George’s jurisdiction, the EAW had clearly dropped the expectation that this book was exclusively for women and indeed the expectation that authority in domestic electricity was necessarily a female prerogative. The de-gendering of the volume was further epitomised when the original Art Deco front cover of elegant female hands caressing a dynamo was dropped.

It was now replaced with an abstract modernist front pale blue cover showing a well-contained white lightning flash. Just as the power of electricity was de-gendered (no more stylized female hands) so was the authorship of the book’s chapters with less emphasis on whether the writers were male or female.

The front cover the next edition of 1971 depicts a three pin safety plug – the embodiment of the EAW’s campaigns to make electricity in the home completely for all, especially children. Well-informed readers might be aware that this was a tribute to the work of Caroline Haslett in 1946 in getting this design of three-pin safety plug approved as BS 1363   

EAW Handbook from 1971

The final edition of the EAW Handbook in 1983 underwent a further gender shift as is evident in its title Essential Electricity – A User’s Guide. This made no assumption about the sex of its user-readers, and dropped mention of the EAW in its authorship too; the exploration of electrical technology in the home was no longer solely a woman’s prerogative, nor even exclusively that of the EAW.

The 1983 edition: Essential Electricity

This Guide turned out to be the very last EAW volume. Over the preceding five decades the rival Women’s Gas Federation had so successful persuaded many householders to retain or adopt gas for heating and cooking that a limit had been reached in the scope for further promotion of electricity beyond power and lighting.

The EAW faced not only this challenge, but also the unwillingness of younger women to join the organisation, since they increasingly had other career options. Worse still the electrical industry no longer accepted EAW training and credentials as necessary or appropriate for employment.

When the EAW was wound up in 1986, so quickly disappeared the infrastructure of thousands of highly skilled women who, for half a century, had served as authorities on using electricity in domestic energy supply. Nevertheless the legacy of the EAW lives on in all of our homes and in our electricity textbooks, where the campaign for greater understanding of and trust in electricity was accomplished over the middle decades of the last century.  

A final note: the EAW’s legacies continues in Trinidad and Tobago in a daughter organisation set up in 1961 after a visit to the UK by Mrs. Louise Buxo, then the Public Relations Officer of the Trindad &Tobago Electrical Commission. A year later, in their newly independent nation, the technical women of Trinidad and Tobago were able to make effective careers for themselves in promoting electrification across their republic.

Their work continues to this day as another living embodiment of the work of Caroline Haslett and the many women that she inspired in the world of electricity.    

Further reading

The most accessible resource on the Electrical Association for Women is at the Archives of the Institution of Engineering & Technology:  ‘Electrical Association for Women – History and Policy’ 

Rosalind Messenger, The Doors of Opportunity: a Biography of Dame Caroline Haslett (Femina Books: 1967)

Carroll Pursell, “Domesticating modernity: the Electrical Association for Women, 1924–86”. The British Journal for the History of Science, 32 (1999). pp 47-67

Elizabeth Sprenger and Pauline Webb in “Persuading the Housewife to Use Electricity? An Interpretation of Material in the Electricity Council Archives”, The British Journal for the History of Science, Vol. 26, No. 1, Energy and Society (Mar., 1993), pp. 55-65.

Suzette Worden “Powerful Women: Electricity in the Home, 1919-40”. in J. Attfield & P. Kirkham, (eds.) 

A View From the Interior: Feminism, Women and Design, (London, Women’s Press: 1989).131-40

[1] Margaret Partridge, “The Direct Current Dynamo, Notes on its Construction and Habits”, The Woman Engineer, 1 issue 3 June 1920, (1919-20), 26-27

[2] Rosalind Messenger The Doors of Opportunity, A Biography of Dame Caroline Haslett DBE Companion IEE, London, UK: Femina Books (1967),  71-72