Born: Caroline Harriett Haslett
Any list of influential women in business in 20th century Britain has to include Caroline Haslett. Throughout her career, she worked ceaselessly to open up the world of work to women, building an impressive network and racking up a number of ‘firsts’ in the process. Caroline was more focused on ensuring her endeavours flourished than gaining personal recognition. A passionate ally, in newspaper interviews, columns and her 1949 book ‘Problems Have No Sex’ she spoke little about herself, more often showcasing the achievements of other women. Despite this she was awarded a CBE in 1931 and made Dame in 1947 and today there is a primary school named after her in Milton Keynes. Here the focus is on the areas where she had particular influence in the first half of the 20th century and her connections to other women in the FT-She 100 rather than a comprehensive career summary.
The eldest of five children born to Caroline and Robert, a railway signal fitter, Caroline left school at 18 and started work as a secretary at the Cochran Boiler Company. She soon asked to be transferred to the works and she qualified as an electrical engineer in 1919. That same year, encouraged by her boss, she applied for a job as secretary of the newly-formed Women’s Engineering Society (W.E.S).
One of the first campaigns that the W.E.S. waged was against the Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act (1919), which pushed women out of the industrial jobs they had done during the First World War. A high-profile ally in this ultimately unsuccessful fight was Lady Rhondda.
Caroline was instrumental in building the profile of the W.E.S., with country-wide publicity tours and a series of high-profile annual conferences, starting in 1923, the ‘remarkable success’ of which was due ‘almost entirely due to the organising skill, wide vision and admirable “publicity” sense of Miss Caroline Haslett’, according to The Vote. In 1925, Caroline pulled off a particular coup, inviting a number of women’s groups to come together at Wembley for a Conference of Women in science, industry and commerce. Delegates attended from around the world, the event was opened by HRH The Duchess of York, her first official engagement after her marriage, and speakers included Millicent Fawcett, Ethel Snowden, Margaret Bondfield (the first woman Cabinet Minister), Lady Rhondda, Constance Hoster and Gladys Burlton.
Caroline was one of the directors of Atalanta, an engineering company set up in 1921 and staffed by women, which started in Loughborough and later re-located to Fulham in London. For thirteen years she edited the W.E.S.’s official journal, the Woman Engineer, which kept her well-versed with the goings-on of women across a wide range of areas and she was made President of the W.E.S. in 1940-41.
In 1924 Caroline co-founded the Electrical Association for Women (EAW). Its first president was Nancy Astor and the co-founders included Laura Annie Willson and Margaret Partridge, with whom Caroline later formed the business Electrical Enterprises .
The EAW had three major objectives. The first was to give women the basic skills to ensure they felt safe in their homes and could solve basic problems. ‘We want to teach housewives to do the elementary engineering of the house themselves. Fuses, for instance. There’s nothing very technical about them. Yet most women are afraid to meddle with the electric light and call in an electrician at quite needless expense’. The second was to encourage women to use electricity to free themselves from household drudgery. The third was to advocate for electricity’s ability to improve the quality of life more broadly, from reducing the strain on eyes from reading in poor light to walking down streets that were properly lit and smog-free. By the time Caroline retired in 1956, it had 14,000 members in 160 branches across the country.
Caroline tirelessly promoted the role of electricity in domestic applications, editing the EAW’s journal, The Electrical Age, for thirty years as well as the Electrical Handbook for Women, first published in 1934, a weighty tome giving a clear and comprehensive picture of all aspects of domestic electrical engineering.
It was through her passion and advocacy for electricity that Caroline started to broaden her reach. She was the only British woman to attend the World Power Conference in Berlin in 1930 and the only woman from any country to speak at the event. She was the first woman to be made a Companion member of the Institute of Electrical Engineers and the only woman to be appointed a member of the British Electrical Authority (1947-57), which named a ship after her in 1949. Her interest in electricity also took her into the area of home safety. She chaired the Home Safety Committee of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents in 1931 and became Vice President of the Society in 1937.
Caroline was a brilliant networker and established a reasonably consistent approach to developing her relationships, which included both a business and a social component. She was an early member of the Women’s Provisional Club (WPC), established by Lady Rhondda and Ethel M. Wood in 1924 and was President in 1930-1. Other members included Marion Lyon, Ella Gasking, Lilian Baylis, Hilda Matheson, Dora Metcalf, Gladys Burlton, Edith Beesley, Yevonde Middleton and Beatrice Gordon Holmes. In 1925, she became Honorary Secretary of another one of Lady Rhondda’s campaigning groups, the University and Business Committee. This strengthened her relationships with women in education, including Helene Reynard, and other commercial areas, particularly advertising, which she saw as the sector where ‘one sees the most outstanding and complete success of women achieving important managerial and executive posts.’ For several years she contributed a column on ‘Women in Commerce’ to Common Cause’s review of the year, charting the progress of women in business and highlighting specific achievements.
Caroline, the change activist
Some of the networks with which Caroline was involved gave women access to mutual support and professional development. Others had a much more explicit agenda of activism on issues including equal pay, labour conditions and workplace discrimination and these were the ones to which she was most committed. In her youth, Caroline had been a suffragette and as early as January 1921 she took advantage of her position at the W.E.S. to share her views on Women’s Economic Value in The Vote, questioning why so few women were in ‘really good remunerative posts’. She blamed attitudes at home – ‘right from the very beginning the girl is taught there are certain things it is not “proper” for her to do’ – and in the workplace, where employers put women into poorly-paid jobs. ‘Women must not be content to remain in the small jobs, they must not accept the values which have been created for them and which are entirely false.’ That same year she joined the Six Point Group.
In 1932, she became Chair of the British Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs (BFBPW), with Ethel Wood again acting as Secretary. This organisation had far more explicit aims regarding the advancement of business and professional women, seeking to give them more share of voice and more opportunities. Frustrated with what she saw as the failure of the WPC to play a more active role in this area, she resigned her membership.
In 1936 Caroline headed a group of women who travelled to Paris for the 2nd Conference of the International Federation of Business and Professional Women and she became President of the IFBPW in 1950. Along with Harold Wilson, then President of the Board of Trade, spoke at their Congress in London that year where over 2,500 delegates and observers from over 20 countries gathered.
When war broke out in 1939 she was horrified at the lack of thought given to the role of women and was instrumental in the formation of the Woman Power Committee in 1940, which brought together MPs and business women to ensure maximum use was made of non-industrial woman power for war purposes. Women who were able to work should get the training they needed and be properly paid; women who were unable to work due to caring commitments should be supported in contributing by growing food and making clothing and equipment at home.
Footage of her fronting a campaign called ‘Women Wanted’ still survives, she wrote a book, Munitions Girl, A Handbook for Women of the Industrial Army and worked with Mary Field on a short film, ‘Mrs T and her Cabbage Patch‘, encouraging women to grow their own food and promoting electricity for cooking.
As the Second World War drew to a close, Caroline turned her attention to agitating for the removal of marriage bars and entry of women into the Diplomatic Service, with partial success. (Women were accepted in 1946 but with a cap of 10% of entrants into the senior grades, pay levels set 20% lower than men in equivalent jobs and a requirement to resign on marriage, which was not removed until 1973.) Her career continued to flourish with more cross-industry roles. She was the first woman to chair a government working party – the Board of Trade’s Hosiery working party – in 1945-46. In 1947, the British Institute of Management was founded and Caroline served on the Council, which eventually resulted in the foundation of the London and Manchester Business Schools. When Princess Elizabeth announced her engagement in 1947, it was Caroline who spoke on the BBC’s new programme, Woman’s Hour, (which started in 1946), congratulating the couple on behalf of the women of Britain.
During her career she took on other roles in the education sector, as a governor of Bedford College for Women, the London School of Economics, Queen Elizabeth College and King’s College of Household and Social Science.
Described on her death in January 1957 as ‘an outstanding figure in industry’ with ‘a direct and charming personality’ and ‘a great sense of humour’, her memorial service at St Martin-in-the-Fields was packed.
Given her particular commitment to women in engineering, Caroline would probably be less than happy at the picture in Britain today. Although more girls than boys have been participating in higher education in the UK for many years, they remain hugely under-represented in the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). Recent UCAS figures indicate that girls make up 35% of students across these four areas and only 19% in Technology and Engineering. This all has a huge knock-on effect in the world of work where STEM graduates are well-positioned for jobs in five of the ten best-paid areas of work. And even within scientific fields, there is research to suggest that scientific fields with a higher representation of women are perceived as ‘softer’ than those with more men and potentially ascribed lower value. Caroline Haslett did her best to carve a path for women but we still have a long way to go.
Caroline Haslett’s archive is still being documented, revealing all sorts of insights into her life and ways of working. If you are interested, check out the IET archives blog.
Publications by Caroline Haslett include: ‘Women in Industry’ in Journal of the Royal Society of Arts (1941) Vol 89 No P.150-164; ‘Munitions Girl. A Handbook for the women of the industrial army’ (1942); ‘Problems have no sex’ (1949).
Sources include: Birmingham Daily Gazette 09/01/1920; The Vote 14/1/1921; Oxford Chronicle and Reading Gazette 25/2/1921; Sheffield Daily Telegraph 12/1/1924; Halifax Evening Courier 8/12/1924; The Woman’s Leader 31/12/1926; Western Daily Press 30/9/1930; Western Morning News 8/6/1937
‘The Doors of Opportunity’ by Rosalind Messenger (1967); “Am I a Lady or an Engineer?” The Origins of the Women’s Engineering Society in Britain, 1918-1940 by Caroll Pursell (1993) in Technology and Culture, Vol. 34, No. 1, pp. 78-97