Before the much-heralded women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and ’70s, there was the lesser-known women’s movement out of darkness in the 1930s and ’40s—better known as rural electrification.
Men piked poles and strung wire, but women trooped to organizational meetings and raised their hands when seats on committees and boards of directors needed to be filled. They pushed reluctant husbands to pay the $5 membership fee to join an electric co-op and see it through to success.
Women were motivated to get central station electricity in their homes because they, by most measures, had the harder life. They bore and raised children without lights or indoor plumbing. They cooked meals over a woodstove on sweltering summer days, washed clothes by hand, and swept dusty wood floors with calloused hands so often, it seemed to their husbands and children they never put the broom down.
Rural anthropologist Deborah Fink points to the inequality of family farm work. Women worked all the time, while men’s work was often seasonal, giving them time to participate in other activities. Farm wives were also more isolated; they didn’t go into town as often as their husbands.
Imagine how an electric range, a clothes washer, and a radio could shift that relationship.
Nebraska Senator George Norris, the legislative “father” of the Rural Electrification Act of 1936, grew up around these women and noted in his autobiography: “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.
“Why shouldn’t I have been interested in the emancipation of hundreds of thousands of farm women?”
NRECA and co-ops across the country have documented what this emancipation felt and looked like.
Congressman Clyde Ellis, later NRECA’s first chief executive, went home to Garfield, Ark., on the day in 1940 when Ozarks Electric Cooperative turned the lights on. “I wanted to be at my parents’ house when electricity came,” he’d said. “When they finally came on, the lights just barely glowed. I remember my mother smiling. When they came on full, tears started to run down her cheeks.”
Meanwhile, another story from the time tells of a small farmhouse in Missouri where a woman ignored the naked lightbulb hanging from the parlor ceiling and ran into the kitchen, where her new refrigerator had stood for a month waiting for electric current. When she opened the door and saw the little light inside come on, she burst into tears.
A refrigerator was one of the first household appliances purchased by co-op families. They also bought washing machines, vacuum cleaners, toasters, water pumps, ranges, sewing machines, irons, and radios. The last two were the most popular appliances early on, probably because irons were relatively cheap, and isolation from town life and the news and entertainment of the wider world was a major drawback of farm life before electrification.
For women unfamiliar with how electricity could make their lives easier, there was Louisan Mamer and the other home economists that the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) sent out on the road. Mamer was one of the best-known “performers” at the REA Farm Equipment Show, or what became known as the “REA Circus.”
Begun as an experiment in October 1938, the circus made 12 two-day stops in Iowa and 10 in Nebraska before the tents and demonstration props and appliances were loaded onto the trucks for the drive back to Washington, D.C.
The show visited 26 other states over the next three years, reaching a million farm families. “It was successful beyond its most ardent supporters’ dreams,” Dick Pence and Pat Dahl wrote in NRECA’s 1984 book The Next Greatest Thing.
There were plenty of things for men to see at the show: dairy equipment, motors for sawing and grinding, water pumps. But readers get the feeling from the old photos and the descriptions in the book that women were the most enthusiastic attendees.
Rural women were on the move in those years leading up to World War II. They, above all others, understood that electrification would be life-changing.