H-Net Review [H-Sci-Med-Tech]: Cohn on Harrison-Moore and Sandwell, 'In a New Light: Histories of Women and Energy'

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Abigail Harrison-Moore, R. W. Sandwell, eds.  In a New Light:
Histories of Women and Energy.  Montreal  McGill-Queen's University
Press, 2021.  242 pp.  $37.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-228-00619-0;
(e-book), ISBN 978-0-228-00756-2; $130.00 (cloth), ISBN

Reviewed by Julie Cohn (University of Houston)
Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (October, 2022)
Commissioned by Penelope K. Hardy

_In a New Light: Histories of Women and Energy_, edited by Abigail
Harrison Moore and R. W. Sandwell, offers a collection of essays
focused on how women shaped the fossil fuel energy transition from
the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century in Canada,
England, Ireland, Scotland, and Germany. As the coeditors argue, the
book's aim is to restore women to the history of energy, from which
they have been sorely missing over the past five decades. Indeed, as
I read the book, I kept saying to myself, "Of course women were part
of this story," which underscores why _In a New Light_ makes such an
important contribution to the growing literature on energy
transitions around the world. _Of course_, women were part of the
story, but they have not been as much a part of the documented

For energy historians, finding the women has been challenging when we
look in all the usual places. There are few in the technical
literature, fewer in the popular histories, a handful in photographs
of significant energy events, and the occasional appearance in
archives. If energy's stories are focused on evolving access to fuels
for light, heat, and motion, and the technologies that render those
sources useful, the key characters, by and large, are male. If the
stories encompass the businesses, laws, and standards that
facilitated transitions from one fuel source to another and
encouraged development of new technologies--especially networked
technologies--again men appear far more often than women. Historians
have excluded women from the record by their choice of topic, their
selection of evidence, and their focus on economic activity as the
framework in which energy transitions took place. The contributors to
_In a New Light_ attempt to expand the focus, introduce new
methodologies, identify different historical sources, and extract
alternative perspectives on where, when, and why energy choices were
made. They turn the reader's gaze toward homes and other settings in
which women were the predominant agents of change--whether singularly
or in concert with their spouses. The collection of essays, though
narrowly determined by regional focus and time frame, offers scholars
a guidebook for how to take a fresh approach to energy history and
bring more than half the population back into the narrative.

In the opening chapter, Ruth Sandwell lays out historiographies of
both energy and gender for the regions under focus. This excellent
review of how the field of energy history emerged, who wrote the
narratives, and why women are, for the most part, left out
establishes the context in which the volume's contributors completed
their work. As she explains, scholars have seen energy transitions in
terms of technological innovations and economic expansions. Relying
on E. A. Wrigley's multidecade publications regarding England's
energy transitions, Sandwell ties _In a New Light's _investigation to
the shift from locally bounded activities that relied on organic
energy resources to geographically unbounded activities that relied
on abundant, extractable, transportable, and transmissible energy
resources--in other words, fossil fuels. The nature of this shift
drew attention to the technologies and economies of
industrialization, which in turn forefronts the work of men. While
some scholars have attended to the consumer side of the energy
equation, few have treated the home like a technological "black box"
to be opened and explored for clues to how women adopted, rejected,
adapted, exploited, or made peace with new energy resources. In a
parallel analysis, Sandwell examines the well-researched body of
literature encompassing women's studies, gender studies, and domestic
histories. Here she finds detailed analyses of the domestic sphere,
the agency of women, and the nature of social evolution during the
same time frame, but few links back to the energy story, with Ruth
Schwartz Cowan's 1983 _More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household
Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave_ being the
important, and baseline-setting, exception. Sandwell argues, quite
successfully, that the historiographic trend to divide society into
two spheres of action--the female sphere of unpaid and low-paid work
in the home and the male sphere of paid work and industry--has
contributed to the opacity of women's places in energy history. Her
historiographic set-up allows the ensuing chapters to complement each
other, despite quite different stories, sources, and locations.

In the remaining seven chapters of the book, Sandwell and six other
scholars follow an arc from candlelight in nineteenth-century British
homes to the electrification of rural Scottish homes in the mid- to
late twentieth century. In between, the authors introduce the readers
to a variety of methodological approaches that are key to shifting
the focus away from industrial archives, patent records, inventor's
personal papers, and technical journals. To find women, they
demonstrate, one must look in the interstices and behind the
curtains. Through careful study of catalogues, court reports, and
advertisements in chapter 2, for example, Karen Sayer discovers the
women who procured, lit, and tended candles to light homes--both
safely and otherwise. Sayer notes that because humans used
candlelight for so many centuries--and still do--it is "inherently
ancient and archaic," and its history is "perhaps simply less
spectacular" than the stories sought by historians (p. 50). Yet she
argues that who made and used the candles, which source of fuel they
chose, and how they handled those lights within the home reflected
the shifting social, economic, and gendered relations of society. As
she illustrates through several microhistories, there are
continuities as well as transitions in energy history, and by looking
carefully at the gendered space of the home, one sees the importance
of women's choices in energy use, management, conservation, and
social status.

Ruth Sandwell picks up the thread in chapter 3, which addresses the
very specific fears expressed by women as they faced introduction of
new energy technologies into their rural Canadian homes. In the late
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, women danced a tango with
the fire hazards of kerosene lamps and creosote in stovepipes, with
the explosive character of kerosene itself, and with the diminished
air quality associated with gas leaks. Importantly, Sandwell uncovers
her stories within a variety of newspapers, trade journals,
pamphlets, medical journals, and publications related to women's
clubs and other activities. Her examples point to the wealth of
detail available to the intrepid historian who looks for women and
their interaction with energy technologies in untapped sources. She
successfully introduces the reader not only to the fears and
anxieties associated with shifts in energy technologies--many of
which were shared by men as well--but also to the ambiguity in the
role women played during energy transitions. They often
simultaneously embraced the new, which promised relief from hard
labor and health benefits to the home, and resisted the transition,
which posed so many potential harms to their families.

In late nineteenth-century London, middle-class women did not have to
act alone when making decisions about interior lighting. In the
book's third chapter, Abigail Harrison Moore introduces three women
who offered decorating services and advice guides to their peers when
they faced questions about gas lighting, electrical lighting, and the
best way to create healthy and aesthetically pleasing interior spaces
in their homes. As an art historian and professor of museum studies,
Harrison Moore brings a visual perspective to the fore. She makes
good use of her sources--the publications of Agnes and Rhoda Garrett,
England's first professional female interior decorators, and of Mary
Eliza Haweis, an advice writer and suffragist--to discover how women
became agents of change. With reproductions of images from the
Garrett and Garrett book _Suggestions for House Decoration in
Painting, Woodwork and Furniture_ (1876), Harrison Moore shows the
reader how women idealized the lighting of a middle-class home.
Further, Harrison Moore underscores women's ambivalence toward fuels
and sources of interior lighting as she contrasts the recommendations
of the Garretts (centrally provided gas lighting) and Mrs. Haweis
(new electrical lights). Harrison Moore--citing Rachel Plotnik, who
has written about electric push buttons--describes the Garretts and
Haweis as "electronic mediators" who bridged the world of evolving
lighting technologies and the world of domestic gatekeepers (mostly
women) during this energy transition.[1] Notably, in his 1995 book
_Cities of Light and Heat: Domesticating Gas and Electricity in Urban
America,_ Mark H. Rose identified a similar set of actors, whom he
called "agents of diffusion."[2] Rose, however, focused on the men
who dispatched educators and demonstrators to persuade women to adopt
electrical technologies in their homes, rather than the individuals
who carried out this work.

Graeme Gooday, in chapter 4, further explores the theme of women
mediating between the growing world of networked energy technologies
and the evolving home front, albeit in an entirely different way.
Gooday highlights women who worked for electrical utilities,
advocated for technically oriented women, aided their electrical
engineering husbands in their professional work, or trained women to
become electrical experts within their homes. Gooday highlights the
importance of the Electrical Association for Women, which produced
the _Electrical Handbook for Women_ (1934), essentially a textbook to
help women become experts in the craft of using electricity. As the
authors of the previous chapters explored, Gooday again underscores
the uncertainty and unease of the homemaker with respect to new
energy technologies. The reluctance of many homemakers to adopt
electrical technologies was a critical challenge to electrification
in early twentieth-century England. He argues that knowledgeable
women were most effective at persuading other women to bring electric
power and light into their homes. Without their efforts, the
male-dominated power companies would have been spinning their
turbines in vain.

By evoking memories of delicious brown bread and extremely difficult
wash day chores in chapter 4, Sorcha O'Brien also introduces the
conflicted role of rural Irish women in adopting electricity during
the mid-twentieth century. O'Brien participated directly in the
collection of oral histories from women who could recall the
attitudes of their mothers and grandmothers as the Rural
Electrification Scheme urged expansion of centralized power
production and distribution throughout the country. This chapter
describes the complex emotional side of a seemingly cut-and-dried
technological transition and places women, once again, at the center
of the story. As O'Brien illustrates, there were generational,
gendered, and economic aspects to the ways rural women responded to
new sources of energy, many eagerly desiring the promised relief from
drudgery while navigating resistance from budget-minded husbands. She
deftly frames the roles of memory and nostalgia in developing an
accurate history of electrification in Ireland and elucidates the
agency of women who, through their gendered economic and domestic
roles, determined how quickly households joined central power
distribution systems. Importantly, O'Brien illustrates how to use
twenty-first century interviews to uncover hidden twentieth-century
stories of electrical women.

Moving away from the Anglophone world of the North Atlantic, Petra
Dolata introduces yet another angle on the complexity of women and
electrification. In Germany's Ruhr Valley, during the mid-twentieth
century, Dolata finds women defiantly wearing clean white garments,
supporting their coal-mining husbands, and advocating to keep mines
open, all while protesting air pollution. In this case study,
domestic use of coal for heating and cooking declined, while
industrial use increased, then declined. Dolata mined the resources
of a 1980s everyday history project in the Ruhr region and a more
recent digital memory project (2015-18) to locate the voices of Ruhr
women. Within images and interviews, she found the ambiguity that
recurs throughout the collected essays in _In a New Light._ In this
case, women were direct consumers of coal and electricity through
their household work and were aides to the producers of coal-fired
energy through their support of laboring men. Their very work
itself--washing the miners' clothes and cleaning their own
homes--served as a continuous protest against the pollution produced
by coal extraction and coal burning. The Ruhr Valley's energy
transitions created paradoxes for the people involved, both by virtue
of their gendered work and by virtue of their class positions. As did
O'Brien, Dolata demonstrates the value of memory and oral history in
deepening an understanding of the experiences of the relatively
recent past.

In the book's closing chapter, Vanessa Taylor proposes that the
growing energy industries of England, and especially northern
Scotland, identified women as necessary agents of change. From the
particular (a 1963 essay by electricity demonstrator Edna Petrie) to
the general (national statistics for specific types of energy
production and use as well as workforce participation by gender),
Taylor weaves together evidence that reveals women as instrumental in
multiple transitions. Women promoted electricity, gas, and solid
fuels, often in competition with each other. They found paid and
volunteer work as mediators for all three industries. They advocated
for improved standards of living, dependent upon networked energy
resources, for themselves, their families, and other women. And they
moved out of the house and into the workforce as they adopted new
energy technologies into their homes. Taylor argues that these roles
contributed also to the higher carbon footprint of British women
today. She seeks not culpability, but comprehension of the complexity
of women's participation in the adoption of particular energy
technologies and regimes.

While the arguments and case studies of the contributors to _In a New
Light_ add depth and breadth to the history of industrialization,
electrification, and accelerated energy resource use, the
bibliography is equally as valuable. The collection of cited
archives, government papers, newspapers, magazines, periodicals,
published debates, websites, and interviews serves as both a roadmap
and a database for historians interested in adding less-heard voices
to the stories of our energy past. The published literature, much of
which serves as primary source material for this book, covers a wide
range of topics, from gender history to gendered histories of energy
and from contemporaneous accounts of industrialization to
contemporary perspectives on energy transitions. The contributors are
to be commended for their creative approaches to finding source
material that elevates the multiple, conflicted, and essential roles
of women within energy stories of the past two centuries.

The contributors to _In a New Light_ all raise questions about the
energy future. The essays illustrate the anxiety and ambiguity felt
by many when asked to change their habits, their duties, and their
societal roles in order to use newfangled energy technologies. This,
the authors suggest, should serve as a caution for
twenty-first-century citizens. The stories of how women navigated the
new world of industrialized and networked energy systems indicate
agency and responsibility across societies--just because the domestic
domain was designated female did not exempt it from a role in the
fossil fuel transition. We will all be agents of the next energy
transition, for better or for ill. This book is a worthwhile read for
those interested in understanding how we reached our energy-intensive
present and how we might proceed into our--hopefully


[1]. Plotnik, "At the Interface: The Case of the Electric Push
Button, 1880-1923," _Technology and Culture_ 53, no. 4 (2012):

[2]. Rose, _Cities of Light and Heat: Domesticating Gas and
Electricity in Urban America_ (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania
State University Press, 1995).

Citation: Julie Cohn. Review of Harrison-Moore, Abigail; Sandwell, R.
W., eds., _In a New Light: Histories of Women and Energy_.
H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews. October, 2022.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57974

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States