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‘Screwdrivers, Scissors and Pliers’: The Electrical Association for Women in Interwar Scotland – Eleanor Peters

Image of a newspaper article titled Electrical Education in Glasgow. To the left is a cartoon of an older woman wearing a dress. At the bottom is a photograph of three women.

2024 marks the centenary of the founding of the Electrical Association for Women (EAW), an organisation that urged women to equip themselves with pliers, scissors, and screwdrivers and learn how to maintain and fix their electrical appliances – no repairman required! The EAW can be understood to be one of the plethora of women’s organisations brought to life in the interwar years. Caroline Haslett, the driving force of the EAW, was an electrical engineer and electricity industry administrator. Throughout her career, she aspired to see electricity rescue women from drudgery in the home.

The chief ambition of the EAW was to ‘bridge the gap between the electro-technical and the domestic worlds’.[1] The EAW did this by busting industry jargon for housewives and providing feedback from consumers to industry professionals. This established the EAW as a mediating body.

Inspired by the operational format of the popular Women’s Institutes, the EAW rapidly expanded through the formation of provincial branches. By 1949 there were 100 branches in Britain with a combined membership of 10,000 women. In 1960, the number of branches had more than doubled to 202. As late as 1971, there were 262 branches.

In 1926, the organisation could boast a quarterly magazine, and by 1933, their headquarters on Regent Street in London launched training courses in Electrical Housecraft. The EAW forged a successful relationship with domestic science colleges across Britain, ensuring that electrical education permeated the curriculum. They introduced women to electric cookers, washing machines, irons, and vacuum cleaners when these goods were still prohibitively expensive to purchase for domestic consumers.

Black and white photograph of the interior of a studio/office.
Interior of Electrical Association for Women Electrical Housecraft School at 20 Regent Street, 1936. Reproduced with permission from the Institution of Engineering and Technology, London.

EAW members seized the campaign in Scotland to electrify the domestic sphere with nationalistic zeal. The interwar years marked a period of economic and technological decline for Scotland. Cultural commentators noted that Glasgow, a city defined by shipbuilding and heavy industry, was in the throes of an identity crisis.[2] Crucially, the expansion of the EAW and its partnership with the Glasgow and West of Scotland College of Domestic Science (known affectionately as the Dough School) offered an alternative national and cultural narrative for Scottish women to participate in. Influential EAW members encouraged women to join the EAW and advised schools to adopt ‘Electrical Housecraft’ education. Mina Galbraith Cowan, vice-president of the Edinburgh and District EAW branch feared the consequences of unremedied electrical ignorance: ‘Unless the rising generation is imbued with the right use of education, and has within its schools the right apparatus, we will not have an electrically-minded country’.[3] In this context, a woman’s inability to mend a fuse or correctly read an electricity meter was detrimental to her family and her country.

Glasgow claimed the distinction of being the first city to form an EAW branch. In 1925, Ruth Kennedy, a Glaswegian electrical appliance demonstrator and daughter of an electrical engineer, approached Haslett with ‘true Scottish determination’, dedicated to forming the first EAW branch.[4] Despite the city’s industrial decline, Glasgow maintained its reputation as the ‘Second City of the Empire’. In its first year of operation, the Glasgow and District branch arranged for members to visit the Royal Technical College, the Glasgow Corporation Tramways, Greenock Power Station, and the Scottish Electric Lighting Service Bureau, where a demonstrator instructed EAW members on ‘Good and Bad lighting in the Home’.

Lady Belhaven and Stenton, Kathleen Gonville Bromhead before marriage, accepted the invitation to become the president of the Glasgow and District branch. In 1930, she made her North Lanarkshire-based stately home and grounds, Wishaw House, available for an electrical exhibition that showcased ‘every kind of domestic electrical apparatus’ including ‘a sheep shearing machine’ and ‘music, tea, and scones’ that were ‘all electric’. The event attracted some 600 visitors who were entertained with competitions including ‘guess the weight of the electric kettle.’[5]

Meanwhile, the Dough School, led by Dorothy Melvin, a forceful woman with a passion to reinvent the reputation of domestic science and establish her college as modern and forward-looking, worked closely with the Glasgow EAW branch and headquarters. In the summer of 1932, and again in 1937, the Dough School hosted an ‘Electrical Housecraft Summer School’, a five-day-long course for domestic science teachers. The Dough School invited students from all parts of the British Isles to ‘invade Glasgow with screwdrivers, scissors and pliers’ to learn about electricity generation and inspect appliances in the College laboratory.[6]

In 1938, the EAW exhibited a working model entitled ‘From Waterfall to Washer’, contrived to demonstrate the ‘harnessing of nature for the accomplishment of homely tasks’.[7] Devised by the Scottish National Development Council, the Empire Exhibition was a large-scale international affair, covering 145 acres of Glasgow’s Bellahouston Park from May to December of 1938. The organisers hoped the Exhibition would showcase and boost the economy of Scotland. The EAW saw women’s domestic use of electricity as taking a central role in Scotland’s economic recovery.

Beyond Glasgow, EAW branches formed across Scotland. The Edinburgh branch formed in 1929, Aberdeen in 1934, and Dundee in 1936. As late as 1974, the EAW’s Golden Jubilee Year, there were thirty-eight branches across Scotland, from Thurso to Kelso. The EAW’s Branch meetings were usually held in the showrooms of the local Electricity Department.

In the 1980s, the privatisation of the electricity industry deprived the EAW of their main source of funding and so the organisation voluntarily dissolved in 1986. Although it has been speculated that the organisation had lost its relevance, a questionnaire sent to branches before the EAW’s closure suggests that members still felt the organisation had work to do.[8] The proliferation of charities and social enterprises dedicated to energy efficiency today also indicates that a demand for bodies that mediate between consumers and industry still exists. What would the EAW do today to quell concerns over rising energy costs, alternative energy sources, and energy efficiency?

Text Copyright © 2024 Eleanor Peters

Dr Eleanor Peters is currently vice-convener of Women’s History Scotland. Eleanor is a recipient of an Elphinstone Scholarship from the University of Aberdeen who investigates the intersection between gender, technology, and science. She is especially interested in researching women’s roles as mediators of science and technology. She completed her undergraduate MA in History with First Class Honours and is published in Women’s History Review and the Journal of Scottish Historical Studies. She is currently working on a project to celebrate the centenary of the founding of the Electrical Association for Women. The content of this blog is based partially on a paper Eleanor delivered at the ‘Electrifying Women’ webinar in April 2022.

2024 marks the centenary of the founding of the EAW. Dr Eleanor Peters is part of a steering group who are arranging events throughout the year, across Scotland and England, to raise awareness of this inspirational organisation. Please see the IET website and Magnificent Women for further details about the centenary.

To find out more about Electrical Housecraft and the women who demonstrated electrical appliances in Scotland, read Eleanor’s articles in the Women’s History Review and the Journal of Scottish Historical Studies.

Top image credit: Students from the Glasgow and West of Scotland College of Domestic Science with an electrified model house, featured in Electrical Age 2, no. 1 (1930): 13. Reproduced with permission from the Institution of Engineering and Technology, London.

[1]  Caroline Haslett (ed.), The Electrical Handbook for Women (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1934), 18.

[2] For example, Andrew Dewar Gibb, Scotland in Eclipse (London: Toulmin, 1930).

[3] ‘Electrical Blessings: Women’s Association Lunch’, Scotsman, 12 June 1936, 16.

[4] Peggy Scott, An Electrical Adventure (London: Jas Truscott and Son, 1934), 16-17.

[5] ‘The Electrical Exhibition at Wishaw House’, Electrical Age 2, no. 3 (1931): 84.

[6] ‘Widnes Woman Teachers and Electrical Housecraft’, Runcorn Weekly News, 9 July 1937, 7.

[7] ‘The Empire Gathers at Glasgow’, Electrical Age 3, no. 10 (1938): 373.

[8] Carroll Pursell, ‘Domesticating Modernity: The Electrical Association for Women, 1924-86’, British Journal for the History of Science 32, no. 1 (1999): 47-67, 64-67.

1 thought on “‘Screwdrivers, Scissors and Pliers’: The Electrical Association for Women in Interwar Scotland – Eleanor Peters

  1. Terrific article.
    We have been trying to make contact with anyone who was a member of the EAW, or whose relatives were members, in search of anecdotes and memorabilia. The EAW archives (at the IET in London) have already been the recipients of a trove of materials from the Helensburgh branch. However, one thing we are still in search of is branch chairwoman’s regalia. The archives has ordinary members’ badges and the only chairwoman’s medallion and blue ribbon with year bars known so far is in Falkirk local authority archives. We think that the hundreds of branch chairwomen in place when the EAW closed all got to keep their medallions of office so these may still be in lofts or back drawers around the UK!

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