Caroline Haslett: freed women from domestic drudgery

Today’s blog post tells of a pioneering woman of the 20th century whose feminism took a very practical form. Caroline Haslett was born in 1895 in Sussex, where her father was a railway engineer. She grew up preferring to play with machinery rather than dolls. A bad back kept her from attending school regularly, and as a result she was considered not strong enough to ever lead a normal life and was advised to leave school as it would be a waste of time. But she worked on strengthening her spine and not only finished school, but also attended secretarial college. In her teens, she became a suffragette. Her first job was as a secretary with the Cochran Boiler Company in London in 1914, just as war was breaking out in Europe. The shortage of men gave Caroline her chance to learn about the engineering side of the company and by 1918 she moved to Cochran’s Scotland site. In 1919 she took the job of secretary with the Women’s Engineering Society (WES), which had been founded to ensure that the opportunities provided by the war for women to enter traditionally male professions were not lost. Caroline worked tirelessly to break down the prejudices of employers towards women in the workplace, and to ensure that women gained access to courses at universities and engineering institutions that had previously been open only to men. The society also provided career advice.

But Caroline wanted to help all women, not just those seeking careers. In the early 1920s, few houses had electric light or heating, and domestic appliances were rare. As a child Caroline had been horrified by her mother’s daily routine, later saying: ‘… and so the work of the house went on: sweeping, scrubbing, polishing and dusting, all done by hand. No wonder Mother got tired.’ She realised that the grueling burden of housework was causing women to become ill. In 1922 Caroline surveyed women to find which appliances would be most useful to them. The most popular answer was a dishwasher followed by a vacuum cleaner. Her survey led to her proposing an organisation to educate women about the uses of electricity and how to use electrical appliances in the home. The WES weren’t supportive so instead Caroline co-founded the Electrical Association for Women (EAW). The organisation’s slogan was ‘emancipation from drudgery’. Caroline is quoted as saying: ‘We are coming to an age when the spiritual and higher state of life will have freer development, and this is only possible when women are liberated from soul-destroying drudgery … I want every woman to have leisure to acquaint herself more profoundly with the topics of the day.’ As well as giving women careers advice, the EAW campaigned for safety awareness courses, as well as producing magazines and books such as ‘The Electrical Handbook for Women’. Women learned how to wire a plug and visited power stations to see how electricity was produced.

Caroline traveled widely to promote her mission, meeting Albert Einstein and Henry Ford. In the process, she became well known and was featured in a 1920s newspaper article entitled “Miss All-Alone”. Her independent lifestyle, flat-sharing in London and doing her own electrical wiring, was practically unheard of at the time.

During the Second World War, Caroline was the only woman member on a committee that investigated the standards for electrical installations in post-war Britain and instigated changes to the designs of electrical plugs to make them safer. From then onwards, Caroline presided over many committees, including becoming the first woman to chair a government working party and the first female chair of the British Electricity Development Association. Caroline’s achievements were recognised when she was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1947. She died 10 years later, and her dying wish was that she be cremated by electricity.

Lilian Bland – the first woman to build and fly a plane

I’ve always had a fascination with splendid Edwardian planes and this week I’ve found a splendid Edwardian lady who built and flew one, the first woman to do so. Lilian Bland was born in Kent in 1878 to an Anglo-Irish family and around the turn of the century, after the death of her mother, moved to Northern Ireland with her father. Even before she took to the air, Lilian led an exciting life. She was a journalist and press photographer, specialising in sports events, and refused to conform to the standards of the day: she was an excellent shot, a smoker, wore trousers, rode a horse astride and practiced martial arts. She tried to ride in the Grand National but was refused because she was a woman. While in Northern Ireland, she took the first colour photos of birds and developed a fascination for bird flight.

Inspired by Bleriot, she attended the first British Aviation meeting in 1909 and decided to design a full-sized glider. This flew well, but she wanted to know whether it would fly with the added weight of an engine. She therefore talked five local men into holding the wings. When it took to the air with the weight of the men, she realised it would hold an engine, and ordered an engine, coming over to England to collect it and taking it back on the train with her. Lilian soon became not only a skilled engineer but also adept at improvisation: when her order for a petrol tank was delayed, she used her aunt’s ear trumpet and a whisky bottle. Lilian completed the plane in 1910 and named it the Mayfly: ‘may fly, may not fly’ It actually rose thirty feet into the air and flew for thirty yards, pretty good by the standards of the day.

Her father, disapproving of Lilian’s unladylike lifestyle and worried she would injure herself, offered Lilian a Model T Ford if she gave up flying. Knowing that her plane was underpowered and ‘more of a grasshopper than an aircraft,’ she accepted her father’s offer and flying played no further part in her life; she’d proved wrong the people who said that women were incapable of building an aeroplane and that was enough satisfaction for her. The car was the start of her next career as a car dealer. Eventually she married a Canadian and helped him establish a farm on virgin land near Vancouver. They travelled everywhere by boat so her engineering skills came in handy.

In 1935 she returned to England and spent the next 20 years gardening in Kent. When she retired to to Cornwall in 1955, she lived in isolation but was happy in retirement, saying, “I love it. I keep busy, I have my plants, I paint and I gamble. Very occasionally I watch television at a neighbour’s house, but only the horse racing – I back five horses a day, with success, I may add and, great fun!” She died in 1971, aged 92.