On Family Day, I had a brief but pithy discussion with several family members about what was the greatest technological development of all time. One of my brothers offered cinema as Number One. Someone else said the internet. I won’t disagree that those were blockbuster inventions. But my vote was for the electricity grid. And I will explain below why I stand by my vote.
This Sunday, March 3 2013, is the 100th anniversary of a women’s march on Washington D.C. It seems incredible today that women were not legally allowed to vote in the U.S. in 1913. Hence the march, the object of which was to pressure president-elect Woodrow Wilson to give women the franchise. The march turned so violent that Secretary of War Henry Stimson (yes, the same Henry Stimson who as secretary of war in 1945—32 years, two world wars, and 6 presidents later—authorized the nuclear attack on Japan) ordered in the cavalry the next day to secure the parade route in expectation of even worse violence. This was a jolting, formative event in America. Seven years later, in 1920, American women won the right to vote. Canadian women won it a year earlier.
This anniversary is getting some attention in the U.S. media. Not enough, in my opinion. I am not American, I am Canadian. But my mother, who emigrated to Canada in 1935 from Ukraine, was in the women’s movement of which the 1913 march was an early and seminal event. She emphasized to me and my two brothers during our upbringing the importance of equality in family life. It is vitally important.
My mom knew from first hand experience what it was like when household work was divided along gender lines. A year after my mother emigrated to Canada in 1935, she and her parents and siblings moved to a farm near Montreal. There was no electricity. Tasks that I can do today with ease, such as laundry, were done by hand. The women’s movement was still in its infancy; this drudgery fell to the household women, including my mom. She still remembers helping her mother, my grandmother, wash the family laundry.
If you think hand-washing laundry is easy, try it. It is not easy. It was an almost-daily job in my mother’s household, and left her mother, my grandmother, exhausted. My mother commented about it on one of my posts which featured a Hans Rosling TED talk about the impact of electricity on his family.
This was the lot of millions of farm families in western countries in that period. (It is still the lot of rural families in today’s China, where as recently as 2004 three out of five rural households did not have a washing machine.) This is why there were massive programs to expand the electricity grid to rural areas. The women’s emancipation movement, which by the time I was a kid was called Women’s Liberation, was one of the critical factors driving rural electrification. Here is a passage from the first volume of Robert Caro’s epic biography of Lyndon Johnson. It covers LBJ’s career as a Texas congressman during the late 30s (around the same time my mom’s family moved to the farm). Johnson’s landmark early work was on rural electrification. Caro writes
Because they had no electricity, [Johnson’s Hill Country constituents] were still doing every chore by hand, while trying to scratch a living from soil from which the fertility had been drained decades before. They were still watching their wives made stooped and old before their time by a life of terrible drudgery, a life that seemed, as one Hill Country woman put it, ‘out of the Middle Ages.’
Caro refers to Texas farm wives as though they were separate from LBJ’s male constituents. But as I have noted, women had won the right to vote in 1920. Is it possible that LBJ, who knew how to win votes, pushed for rural electrification as hard as he did because he understood the dynamics of household decision making?
Regardless, the situation was the same in rural Quebec at around the same time. That wife “made stooped… by terrible drudgery” was my grandmother. That life was the one my mom, and her family, led in rural Quebec in the late 1930s. Life without electricity is not romantic. It is medieval drudgery.
This is why I think the electricity grid is the greatest invention of modern times. It provided a technological solution to the intractable problem of inequality in household labour.
It is also why my blood boils when I hear people advocating that electricity be made more expensive, more scarce, as if electricity is an evil of modern life. My mother is 80 today. She lives in a downtown Toronto high rise. She enjoys a modest middle class standard of living by the standards of an affluent western country, which is what her parents were seeking when they emigrated from Ukraine in the mid-1930s. Her standard of living depends utterly on the availability of reliable, affordable electricity. She, and all other people in Ontario, should have cheap electricity.