A New Spark: Electricity and Girl Guides in Interwar Britain

ALONA BACH

“‘And the wicked fairy flew away, and they all lived –’ Phip! – Darkness – right in the middle of the story.”

Photo by Johan Hansson via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.

So begins “When the Light Failed,” an article from the 1926 inaugural issue of a British magazine called The Electrical Age. This publication was primarily directed at female engineers and forward-thinking housewives. Though the usual content of the magazine offered practical advice to women about harnessing electricity for use in daily life, “When the Light Failed” was a fictional piece. More peculiarly, it was intended not for women but for Girl Guides, the female equivalents of Boy Scouts in Britain. In the event of a blackout, the article states, “the well-trained guide will not dash for outside help, nor will she sit patiently suffering in the dark.” Instead, she could solve the problem herself: “All girl guides,” the article continues, “should know about replacing fuses.” (1) But why was The Electrical Age printing a fictional story about Girl Guides at all?

The story “When the Light Failed” was actually the first article in a series entitled “A Page for Girl Guides,” which ran in The Electrical Age from June 1926 until January 1931. The series focused on explaining domestic applications of new technology to young members of the Girl Guides Association, who might have received the magazine from their mothers or Girl Guide group leaders. Some articles in the series were instructive, some presented technical concepts as parables, and many took on a narrative form. One article, for example, entitled “Doctoring the Vacuum,” was framed as a dialogue between a girl named Emma, who subscribed to The Electrical Age, and her friend Anne, who needed Emma’s electrical knowledge to repair a broken vacuum so that her house would be “ab-so-lutely spotless and polishy” before her aunt arrived. (2)

While the series encouraged Girl Guides to understand how electricity and domestic appliances worked, it did not go so far as to suggest that Guides should supplant their male relatives as the mechanics of the family. On the contrary, “Wireless,” the Girl-Guide article printed in the April 1929 issue of The Electrical Age, suggested that only “the families who have no brothers or fathers who will make their [wireless radio] sets can turn to the Girl Guides.” (3) Similarly, “That Good Deed” points out that since a Girl Guide “will undoubtedly have mastered the simple matter of replacing a fuse wire if she is a guide worthy of the name, if […] the menfolk of the house be not at hand, there will be no cause for despair.” (4) In The Electrical Age, the role of women and girls was to fill in for men when they were absent, but not to replace men completely.

… the EAW viewed electricity as the key to simultaneously reducing the amount of labor needed for a woman to run a home, and giving women an outlet for the technical training they had gained during their wartime work.

This type of rhetoric reflected – and indeed promoted – popular conceptions of post-World War I female roles. During the previous decade, British women had both gained the vote and, in wartime, transcended the confines of domesticity as they found employment in previously male workplaces. Once the war ended, however, women were encouraged to return to their roles as wives and mothers, as the men once more assumed their positions in factories and offices. The image of the working “Modern Woman,” which had taken hold during wartime, soon gave way to the “New Mother:” a woman whose new skills in management and technology were applied not at work but at home. (5)

It was in this landscape that the Electrical Association for Women (EAW) began publishing The Electrical Age as part of its fight for “Emancipation from Drudgery.” From its foundation in 1924, the EAW viewed electricity as the key to simultaneously reducing the amount of labor needed for a woman to run a home, and giving women an outlet for the technical training they had gained during their wartime work. (6)

Simultaneously, the larger and more established Girl Guides Association was also cultivating girls’ independence within accepted social boundaries. It provided a structured environment in which girls could participate in “unconventional activities” such as camping and sailing. Because these activities occurred in controlled spaces and in traditionally female contexts, Girl Guides were able to maintain the wholesome image associated with their brother organization, the Boy Scouts.  The Guides remain a part of mainstream British society to this day. (5)

The “Page for Girl Guides” series followed this trend: it transposed the unconventional, traditionally male activity of electrical engineering into the female-coded sphere of the home. When The Electrical Age wrote its series for Girl Guides, it was not only catering to the interests of a large contingent of young women who might later want to join the EAW’s ranks, but was also establishing the EAW’s wholesomeness and credibility: if learning about electricity was a suitable pastime for Girl Guides, the quintessence of British girlhood, it must be a suitable pastime for British women as well.

Works Cited:

  1. Partridge, Margaret. “When the Light Failed.” The Electrical Age, June 1926. 34-35. The Institution of Engineering and Technology Archives.
  2. Partridge, Margaret. “Doctoring the Vacuum,” The Electrical Age, December 1926. 96-97. IET Archives.
  3. Shilling, Beatrice. “Wireless.”  The Electrical Age, April 1929. 458. IET Archives.
  4. Sharp, Gladys F. “That Good Deed.”  The Electrical Age, July 1928. 330-332. IET Archives.
  5. Proctor, Tammy M. On my Honour: Guides and Scouts in Interwar Britain. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 2002. 74, 80.
  6. Scott, Peggy. An Electrical Adventure. 18. Institution of Engineering and Technology Archives.

Alona Bach is a staff writer for Brevia. She can be reached at alonabach@college.harvard.edu.