Is energy a feminist issue?

First things first: what do I mean by ‘energy’? In the simplest terms, something we use to make machines work. Common examples are combustible fuels (e.g. gas, petrol, paraffin) and electricity (you’ll be needing some of that to read this!), though electricity is usually generated by burning fuels, so you’re just having the fuel burnt a long way away from you.

“Why did it take most of human history, until the late 19th century, for feminism to get going?” I believe the answer is one of power, electrical power.

To assess whether or not energy can be considered a feminist issue we need to look at the history of energy and feminism in parallel with each other. The first major energy boom in the developed world was during the 19th century during which coal was being exploited to run steam engines and furnaces for industrial uses, powering the industrial revolution; however, this energy was not available at home, unless you were both extremely wealthy and didn’t mind having lots of spinning axils inside your house! (Yes, some people did try it, it didn’t last long). The key here for women was that this energy was only available in male-dominated spaces: factories, ships, mines, trains. With women still confined to traditional gender roles they had no access to this power until the advent of electrical power stations in the early 1880’s and Nikola Tesla’s invention of the alternating current system. Power began, starting with the rich and large businesses first, to enter the home and into the hands of women.

Historically men seeking to repress women have had to find ways to keep women busy. Near constant pregnancy with plenty of children to look after has always been a common tactic, but for women without children, or in-between pregnancies, this isn’t enough to keep women in the state they wanted them in: too tired to think, too busy to do anything else and trapped in a box. So the go-to plan was never-ending busy work in the form of housework. Many good books have been written on women and housework from a feminist perspective, and they will give you a far superior account of this part of history than I will; however, for now let us suffice to say that doing all possible housework to perfection by hand is an all day all year occupation. Women in positions of wealth (well, their husbands’ wealth) have had access to a form of power to reduce housework for millennia: servants! Why did it take until the late 19th century for these women to get feminism really going? Remember, most suffragettes were from middle-class backgrounds where they had the finances to hire servants. Well, apart from reasons of wealth (being a rich woman beats being a poor woman, even beats being a poor man in many regards), class divisions, etc. women simply had either too many servants or not enough. Servants, being human beings, need supervision and as you get more wealth you get a bigger house, which needs an army of servants to keep clean and working, who need someone to manage the human resources, which once you get to that size is a full time job leaving you in the same position: too tired, too busy, and stuck at home. Too few servants and you had to spend any time you gain not managing them on doing the work yourself.

When electricity brought energy into houses it was very quickly realised by some entrepreneurial individuals that there was money to be made making new electrical machines to run off the new domestic electricity supplies. Most of these were machines that mechanised dull repetitive tasks which were invariably linked to housework. For example, the vacuum cleaner. It makes cleaning floors much faster and easier than doing it by hand with a broom and so saves a lot of time and effort. The first vacuum cleaners were powered by coal fuelled steam engines that came to your house on the back of a cart and needed a whole team of men to operate; electricity allowed for the engine driving the vacuum cleaner to be reduced down to a portable size and for it to not vent coal dust all over the inside of the house! Electricity wasn’t available to most of the population yet due to the sheer expense of the new system; however the upper and upper-middle classes soon found themselves saving money by hiring far fewer servants, now equipped with new electrical domestic labour saving devices, making managing servants a far less time-consuming task. This newfound time and energy allowed for women to dedicate themselves full time to their own pursuits. One popular pursuit quickly became being treated as human, hence suffragettes.

Work made Easier... and in half the Time with the aid of a Eureka vacuum cleaner.  The thrifty housewife uses the Eureka vacuum to clean her draperies. curtains, rugs and overstuffed furniture, making them all look bright and new. Call us for demonstrations.  Established 1871 Hardy's  GOOD FURNITURE LINCOLN

Work made Easier… and in half the Time with the aid of a Eureka vacuum cleaner.

After WWII, electrical power grids in developed nations began rapid expansion and integration, with most national power systems dating back to the 40’s and 50’s. Over this period of time the vast majority of homes, and certainly all homes in urban areas, gained a supply of energy that was rapidly becoming more convenient and less expensive, which brought with it the mechanisation of domestic tasks to women of increasingly lower income households. This meant that by the late 1960’s a large amount of female labour had been freed by the increased productivity of performing domestic tasks, which as households were still normally financed by a man’s income alone meant this time was to be spent, in most cases, as women pleased. Note this is the same time that the female consumer as a general marketing idea came into force. Previously it was thought the only women worth marketing to were the wives of rich men, but now with more free time and husbands with the highest average wages compared to the cost of living the world has ever seen, an opportunity for profit was created, something that would also not have been possible without the mechanisation of ordinary households.

This surge in mechanisation of domestic tasks provided a second large scale release of female labour potential, which was used in part to drive the second wave of feminism that was being built upon post-war ideas about gender, sexuality, etc.

Currently, feminism is still benefiting from ever increasing levels of mechanisation, reduced working hours and faster cheaper communications to discuss ideas, apply political/economic pressure and to coordinate feminists causes across the globe, many of which are in developing nations that are in various stages of reaping the benefits of industrialisation. But all this is still underpinned by the same system that we have been using for over a century, and with increasing resource pressures and climatological issues presenting us with new challenges to face our energy system, I believe this has been for some time, and continues to be a feminist issue.

This is also a kyriarchal issue. With many developing nations generating much of their power from coal and putting exponentially increasing number of cars on roads, it would be a piece of supreme hypocrisy for the developed world to say, “You can’t have all those things we’ve had for so long, the carbon cost is too high.” But we can’t ignore the issues at hand, which is why I believe that it is imperative for any feminist group, especially an intersectional one, to support the development of practical solutions to these issues, whatever they may be, as things could go very badly if we just bury our heads in the sand. If energy starts running low, who is going to end up being cut off from the supply first? I’ve seen the contingency plans for what national governments plan, and minority groups will be hit hardest by even the earliest and least drastic stages.

This is one of my cases for putting literal power in the hands of the people, taking this vital underpinning of our societies out of the hands of rent seeking companies and into the hands of the people who would be most affected by the system breaking down.

Further reading:

[1] “A woman’s work is never done: history of housework in the British Isles 1650-1950” by Caroline Davidson

[2] “Women and the Machine: Representations from the Spinning Wheel to the Electronic Age” by Julie Wosk

[3] “A New System of Alternating Current Motors and Transformers” by Nikola Tesla

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