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Lighting Up the World

Why electricity is good—and more is better.

Fortnightly Magazine - July 2011

material progress through more energy usage—and remains a model for the developing world (see Figure 6) .

Emancipation of Women

George Norris, U.S. Senator from Nebraska, co-sponsor of the Rural Electrification Act, said in 1936:

“I had seen first-hand the grim drudgery and grind which had been the common lot of eight generations of American farm women… I could close my eyes and recall the innumerable scenes of the harvest and the unending punishing tasks performed by hundreds of thousands of women, growing old prematurely; dying before their time… Why shouldn’t I have been interested in the emancipation of hundreds of thousands of farm women?”  30

In 1900, surveys indicated that the typical American housewife spent 44 hours a week cooking, cleaning, and doing laundry. 31 Food preparation could consume an entire day as meals were usually prepared from scratch. Wood had to be cut and coal had to be hauled. Fuel stoves had to be cleaned and virtually no houses had indoor plumbing. With limited refrigeration, daily trips to the market were required. Even bearing water was a daily backbreaking chore. “You see how round shouldered I am? Well, that’s from hauling water. I was round shouldered like this well before my time,” said a farm woman from Tennessee at the time. 32

In 1912, Thomas Edison predicted to Good Housekeeping Magazine that the “housewife of the future will be neither a slave nor a drudge; she will be rather a domestic engineer than a domestic laborer, with the greatest of all handmaidens, electricity, at her service. This will so revolutionize the woman’s world that a large portion of the aggregate of woman’s energy will be conserved for use in broader, more constructive fields.” 33 Over the next few decades, a full range of electricity-based appliances, from vacuum cleaners and refrigerators to washing machines and the ever sought-after electric lights, became available in rural homes. By 1936, The New York Times (Ostrolenk) noticed that the “American housewife has taken to electricity with an alacrity that even the depression could not stop,” and the Federal Power Commission affirmed that electrical gadgets had become as “essential in our daily lives as the bread we eat and the water we drink.”

In Engines of Liberation , Greenwood et al. (2002) note that with the rise of electricity these labor-saving electrotechnologies provided nothing less than a household transformation that was, in many ways, socially equivalent to the industrial revolution. Before the onset of electricity, the vast majority of women worked at home. By the end of the 20th Century, however, most would work in the open market. The technological progress engendered by the availability of electricity to the household sector played a major role in liberating women from the home. For example, female education was allowed to become a priority (see Figure 7) . Regardless of any shift in societal attitudes, these drastic changes would not have been possible without electricity. Paraphrasing Greenwood’s group, while sociology may have supplied the fuel for the women’s movement, the spark that ignited it came from electricity and the