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.


Hedy Lamarr – not just another pretty face

Hedy Lamarr is one of the most fascinating women I’ve encountered in my Herstory project. We all know her as a beautiful Hollywood star, but did you know that she invented a technology we’d all be lost without?

Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler was born in 1914 in Vienna to a Jewish family. At age 18, she starred in Extase, a movie that became notorious for her faked onscreen orgasm, which she achieved by being poked in the bottom with a safety pin. That year she married an intelligent, wealthy older man, but soon realised what a mistake she’d made. Her husband was extremely controlling, prevented her from pursuing her acting career and sought to destroy every copy of Extase in existence. A munitions manufacturer with close ties to Hitler and Mussolini, he insisted that Hedy accompany him to dinners, business meetings and conferences in the field of military technology. Her role was to sit quietly and look beautiful, but no-one imagined that she was taking in every word that was said.

When she attempted to return to acting, her husband prevented her from leaving his castle. She made her escape disguised as her maid, whom she’d drugged, and made her way to Paris, where she met Louis B Mayer. Mayer took her to Hollywood, renamed her Hedy Lamarr, and promoted her as the world’s most beautiful woman. Soon she was a star but her roles weren’t exactly challenging, usually the dark, exotic seductress. She famously said, ‘Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.’ To relieve her boredom, she invented things. Her earliest inventions include a tablet that would dissolve in water to create a carbonated beverage and a skin-tightening technique based on the principles of the accordion.

However, in the early 1940s, when it became obvious that the Americans would become drawn into the war in Europe, Hedy realised that her knowledge of Nazi technology might be useful. She knew that the Germans had been working on wireless means of controlling torpedoes, but their method used a single radio frequency communication, which was easy to jam and divert the torpedo off course. She invented a system whereby the transmitter and receiver randomly hop among several radio frequency channels, making signals difficult to jam. Together with the avant garde composer George Antheuil, they developed the technique of frequency hopping using a piano roll to randomly switch the signal sent from the control center to the torpedo in short bursts among 88 frequencies, like the 88 keys on a piano keyboard. Their invention was patented but they gave it to the military for free, and it wasn’t used until 1962 during a blockade of Cuba, by which time the patent had expired and Hedy’s involvement forgotten

Over the next decades, Hedy’s idea became absorbed into a larger area of technology known as spread spectrum communication. But when wifi technology took off, Hedy’s invention came into its own. Her original frequency hopping idea is the basis of bluetooth technology, used every day in computers and mobile phones.

Hedy had quite a colourful personal life too. She married six times, had two children and an adopted son from whom she became estranged, earned thirty million dollars but spent every penny. In her later years she became reclusive; seeing no-one, not even her family, but talked for up to seven hours a day on the phone. She turned to plastic surgery to preserve her fading looks but with disastrous results. And sadly her scientific work was not formally recognised until 1997, when she given an award by the Electric Frontier Foundation, but refused to come out of seclusion to collect it in person. She died aged 85 in January 2000.