Caroline Harriet Haslett

 

INSPIRING INNOVATORS:THE VITAL ROLE played by domestic technology in allowing for greater gender equality has been widely recognised for some time now. By liberating women from much of the drudgery of domestic chores and extraordinarily labour-intensive tasks such as laundry, these developments were critical in facilitating greater female workforce participation.

A sizeable body of academic work has been written examining the social and economic repercussions of domestic technology. However, it speaks volumes that while the histories of the “domestic industrial revolution” focus on how they altered the lives of the women who used them, we rarely give as much thought to those women who were instrumental in creating such a revolution.

Chief among those was Caroline Harriet Haslett, the pioneering early 20th-century electrical engineer who spent her working life encouraging the adoption of technology in the cause of female emancipation. In many respects, her story foreshadows the sweeping changes in the role of women in society, but as so often with innovators and pioneers, she had to forge her own path with few antecedents to smooth the way.

Born in Suffolk in 1895, her father was an engineer and lay preacher. His job and his faith were to prove an enduring influence on Haslett throughout her life. She was a sickly child, suffering from a weak spine that caused her to miss considerable amounts of school as she spent prolonged periods recuperating in bed. But she confounded expectations by finishing school, and then by attending secretarial college.

A career as a secretary does not usually lead to a pioneering role in electrical engineering, of course, but Haslett was fortunate enough that her first job was with the Cochran Boiler Company in London, where she began as a junior clerk in 1914, just as the first World War was breaking out across Europe.

It was a dark time, but one that offered hitherto impossible opportunities to women, as men of fighting age went to the trenches, and the importance of the engineering industries became paramount. By 1918, Haslett had moved to Cochran’s Scottish base to learn the practical side of the engineering business, which was to be the start of her groundbreaking career.

In 1919, she saw an advert for a secretarial position with the Women’s Engineering Society (WES), founded by Lady Parsons, wife of the renowned Sir Charles Parsons, inventor of the Parsons steam turbine, and an engineer in her own right.

Haslett promptly applied for the job, the beginning of a life of advocacy work, and an enduring friendship with the Parsons.

It was while secretary of the WES that Haslett came across a proposal to set up an organisation specifically to educate women about the benefits of electricity and encourage the adoption of electrical appliances in the home.

The proposal didn’t gain much favour from Lady Parsons or the Institution of Electrical Engineers, Haslett could see the potential, and in 1924 she co-founded the Women’s Electrical Association, which changed its name to the Electrical Association for Women (EAW) in 1925. It was the EAW that cemented Haslett’s place in the history of domestic technology, as the organisation became a leading advocacy group, with Haslett its public face.

Key to appreciating the nature of her achievement was the association’s slogan: emancipation from drudgery. Haslett saw her role as being as much about promoting equality as electricity, and this was when both were rather novel concepts. It also reflected the somewhat utopian notion technology could lead to massive social improvement for women, fundamentally altering their traditional social function. Of course, it took a lot more than the widespread adoption of domestic electrical appliances for that to happen, but Haslett’s role in articulating how their role could and should change was instrumental in facilitating that early liberation.

The EAW’s campaigns included safety-awareness programmes, campaigns for the improvement of the performance of domestic appliances, and lobbying the engineering community for more suitable designs in household electrical goods. And Haslett’s influence spread far beyond the UK.

She travelled widely on trade missions for the British government, meeting Albert Einstein and Henry Ford on her travels. She became president of the British Federation of Business and Professional Women, before becoming president of the International Federation in 1950, just two of the numerous associations and federations she worked with. Her life’s work was recognised when she was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1947. She died 10 years later.

Her name might not be closely associated with domestic appliances in the way a Hoover or a Dyson is – there is, however, a white iris named in her honour – but in the realm of promoting the use of technology for domestic needs, her role cannot be exaggerated.