1919 was a year of promise born of misery. Between the ravages of influenza and the indiscriminate trench carnage of the First World War, millions had perished as an entire generation was gutted of its most promising individuals. For men, the war brought little but pain and existential disillusionment, but for women, in between the grief of black-edged envelopes announcing the deaths of fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons, it brought a priceless opportunity to serve their country, not just as isolated groups of motivated individuals, but for perhaps the first time in history en masse.
Literal hundreds of thousands of British women streamed into the factories to act as workers, and the most dynamic among them seized the opportunity to learn engineering, industrial chemistry, electrical design, and power plant construction in the process, building thereby a new core of thousands of women possessing first hand experience in the most recent industrial techniques. They had responded to their country’s call and at war’s end, with the passing of women’s suffrage, they had every reason to expect that their knowledge and know-how would be fully employed by a nation in desperate need of reconstruction.
Of course, that was not to be. The unions that had tolerated the presence of women in factories in the name of wartime patriotism formed an unassailable phalanx of opposition when it came to allowing those women to keep their positions, or acquire any new positions, in the post war economy. A government bill passed which made it illegal for any factory that had not employed women before the war to continue employing them after. A few brave factory owners opposed the bill and were promptly crushed with fines. Women were free to vote, and soon to run for office, but they were not free to continue in the positions that they had made their own during a dismal half decade.
To fight for the readmission of women engineers into the work force, in 1919 Katharine Parsons, an engineer herself and wife of the excruciatingly wealthy inventor of the Parsons steam turbine, gathered together a core of dedicated engineers to form the Women’s Engineering Society (WES). Katharine’s daughter, the mercurially talented but perpetually frustrated Rachel Parsons, was President of the society, and for secretary, from a pool of dozens of applications Katharine chose a 24 year old boiler engineer from Suffolk who would be the organization’s guiding force for the next four decades: Caroline Haslett (1895-1957).
Haslett’s life to that point had been full of challenge but somewhat diffuse as to direction. As a child, she loved sitting with her father in his shop and learning how to use the various tools he kept there, but was increasingly sidelined from physical occupation by an unspecified illness that compelled her to remain on her back for large portions of the day. She filled those long, dull hours with whatever books she could find and as a result of her largely self-acquired education she was awarded a scholarship to Haywards Heath High School in 1906. Against all expectations, these years saw her strength slowly return but Haslett did not rise to the expectations her teachers had of her. The education at the school, focused as it was on refinements that could not speak to the tool-wielding daughter of a railroad signal engineer, did not engage her and her grades reflected her lack of enthusiasm. She was ultimately expelled from the school in 1913 due to some scandal over a failed romantic attachment, and was, armed with a useless education indifferently received, set loose to make her way in the world.
She had definite interests, and particularly was engaged by the potential of electricity to materially improve the lives of women such as her mother who ground away the better part of their day in mundane, repetitive tasks. Prior to the war, however, there was no way for a woman of middling means to establish herself as an electrical experimenter, and so she turned to that old standby, the secretarial college. She took classes in the necessary secretarial skills for a period of around a year, and in 1914 landed a job at the Cochran Boiler Company as a junior clerk. With the pressure of wartime she rose through the ranks quickly and by 1918 was managing the London office before being sent to a position at the Cochran works in Annan where she was able to gather first hand experience on the factory floor and design room. Within a year she had amassed enough engineering knowledge to design her first boiler for a New York client.
War’s end, however, meant for Haslett the same thing it meant for tens of thousands of other women workers and engineers, the need to find new employment. Fortunately, she happened upon the WES advertisement at just this moment, submitted her application, and secured for herself a calling that would occupy her for the rest of her days. Being secretary of the WES was not just a matter of copying down minutes and filing papers, it was a comprehensive organizational post that put her at the heart of the British effort to bring women engineers back to full employment again. She edited the society’s quarterly journal, Woman Engineer, maintained a correspondence with hundreds of women seeking post-war engineering work, encouraged enterprising individuals in the establishing of new WES chapters, and most importantly battered at the doors of the professional engineering associations to compel them, one after another, to accept women as full members.
Caroline Haslett, it turned out, was something of an administrative dynamo, and by the end of her life she had accumulated dozens of directorships and advisory board roles, each of which nudged the wheel of professional women’s progress further forward. Perhaps the most important of her projects, however, was the formation and support of the Electrical Association for Women in 1924. Her assuming the directorship of the group came at the cost, however, of creating a rift with Katharine Parsons, who saw electrification as a distraction from the WES’s more traditional interest in factory and manufacturing work. Parsons would eventually leave the WES in a whirl of indignation, pulling both her name and her money from the project that she had begun, and leaving Haslett to reform the group using a new crop of talented and motivated women.
In the meantime, the EAW went from success to success as Haslett wrote books on the subject of domestic electricity and the organization built model electrical homes to demonstrate to a curious England what life might be like in a world where electric devices freed women from dawn to dusk domestic drudgery. The EAW model rooms drew thousands of visitors, and the group’s new quarterly journal Electrical Age (which, of course, Haslett also edited, while continuing to edit Woman Engineer) aimed at a popular audience hungry for information about the latest devices and the time they might save. The authors of Electrical Age made the argument that electricity in the home would free women’s time, allowing them to work outside that home if they so chose, and thereby boosting family income and domestic satisfaction.
With the arrival of the Second World War, Britain found itself thanks to Caroline Haslett much more prepared to tap the brilliance and abilities of its women engineers and workers. Women had been accepted into almost all the important professional engineering organizations due to Haslett’s tireless advocacy, and as such a crop of electrical, aeronautical, naval, and industrial engineers was standing in the wings ready to make their contribution to the defeat of the Nazi war machine. Haslett even wrote a book, Munitions Girl, in 1942, to explain to women the expectations and rigors of working in the munitions industry. She also served during the war as the only woman on a 20 person committee tasked with determining safety and plug standards for post-war England, so if you enjoy non-electrocuted British children, you have her to thank.
The list of Haslett’s official positions and projects through the 1930s, 40s, and 50s is impossibly long and speaks to the spirit of a person devoting every Joule of her considerable energy to expanding opportunities for others and improving the safety of everyday life for all. She worked herself to a punishing degree for someone who had spent so much of her early life in enforced rest, and though suffering the effects of nephritis as early as 1954 she kept pushing on until 1956 when at last she resigned most (but of course not all) of her professional responsibilities only to die of coronary thrombosis a mere four days into 1957. She had never asked for nor allowed herself rest, but upon her death she left behind a world where millions of people’s days were less consumed by menial servitude and thousands of bold professionals had the right to work as hard as they desired at the things that gave them satisfaction, and by all accounts, for Caroline Haslett, that was all that she could have asked from her life.
FURTHER READING: The main book to have is Rosalind Messenger’s 1967 The Doors of Opportunity but good luck finding it! Out of print and unavailable even from specialty shops it is a rare beast indeed. Luckily, there is a significant amount of information about Caroline Haslett, the Parsonses, and a whole host of other early 20th century English engineers in Henrietta Heald’s Magnificent Women and their Revolutionary Machines (2019), which tells the story of the WES and the people it inspired.