Hardships of a Woman's Life Before Electrification


Punishing tasks, growing old prematurely, dying before their time.

Today in Fortnightly

In 1984, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association published a remarkable history. "The Next Greatest Thing" chronicled the nation's electrification, outside of the cities especially, where most Americans still lived.

The first chapter, Because There Was No Electricity, tells a poignant story of how most lived. A woman's life was particularly hard, as we excerpt here: 

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"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; conscious of the great gap between their lives and the lives of those whom the accident of birth or choice placed in the towns and cities."

"Farm wives hated wood stoves because they were they were so dirty, because the smoke from the wood blackened walls and ceilings, and ashes were always escaping through the grating, and the ash box had to be emptied twice a day - a dirty job and dirtier if, while the ashes were being carried outside, a gust of wind scattered them around inside the house."

"If a bunch of peaches came ripe a certain day, that was the day they had to be canned - no matter how the housewife might feel that day... And once the canning process was begun, it could not stop... Sick or not, when it was time to can, a woman canned, standing hour after hour, trapped between a blazing sun and a blazing wood fire."

"You see how round-shouldered I am? Well, that's from hauling the water. I was round-shouldered like this well before my time, when I was still a young woman. My back got bent from hauling the water, and it got bent when I was still young."

"Her hands - from scrubbing with lye soap and wringing - were rare and swollen. There was also the bending - hours of bending - over the rub boards... Hauling the water, scrubbing, punching, rinsing: a farm wife did this for hours on end - while a city wife did this by pressing a button on her washing machine."

"The irons would burn a woman's hand. The wooden handle or the potholder would slip, and she would have searing metal against her flesh... But the worst aspect of ironing was the heat. On ironing day, a fire would have to be blazing in the wood stove all day, filling the kitchen, hour after hour, with heat and smoke."

"The circle of light cast by a kerosene lamp was small. If a family had so many children that they completely surrounded the one good lamp while studying, their mother could not do her sewing until they were finished... Pointing to deep vertical lines between her eyebrows, more than one farm wife says, so many of us have these lines from squinting to read."

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Public Utilities Fortnightly and the men and women in our great industry of today are grateful for the achievements of our industry when in its infancy.

Steve Mitnick, Editor-in-Chief, Public Utilities Fortnightly

E-mail me: mitnick@fortnightly.com