Remembering Caroline Haslett, a Staunch Advocate for Women in Engineering

March 15, 2024 by Ingrid Fadelli

In this Women's History Month feature, we explore the life of Caroline Haslett, a leader in many societies for female engineers.

In celebration of Women’s History Month, this article spotlights the inspiring life and groundbreaking accomplishments of British electrical engineer Caroline Haslett, an early advocate of women’s rights who defied societal norms and broadened the horizons for women in engineering.


Dame Caroline Haslett

Dame Caroline Haslett when she became the director of the Electrical Association for Women. Image used courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (Public domain)

Early Life and Upbringing

Caroline Haslett was born in 1895 in Worth, a village in West Sussex, England. Her father, Robert Haslett, was a railway signal engineer and activist for the co-operative movement, established to safeguard the rights of workers during the industrial revolution. 

Her father’s profession sparked Haslett’s fascination for machines and electrical systems from a young age. During her formative years, Haslett also developed a heightened awareness of the societal differences between men and women, observing her father’s leadership roles in technological fields and her mother’s tireless dedication to household chores.

This awareness bloomed into a sense of social responsibility, later encouraging her to challenge gender roles and advocate for women’s rights. Growing up at a time of rapid industrialization, Haslett became increasingly drawn to the field of engineering, despite the lack of opportunities the field offered women at the time.


A Bright Career in Engineering

After completing her secondary education in Haywards Heath, Haslett moved to London, where she attended a business secretarial course. After completing this course and amid World War I, she started working as a clerk at the Cochran Boiler Company, a company specializing in the production of industrial boilers.

Her career at Cochran advanced rapidly, allowing her to start attending professional development workshops where she acquired basic engineering skills. These workshops and her work at the company soon progressed to a management role at the Cochran Boiler Company's London office, where she received orders from the War Office. Haslett excelled in this position and was sent to the company's Scottish office. It was here that she designed her first boiler blueprint, including specifications and shipping instructions to New York.

During World War I, Haslett and many other women stepped into the workplace to fill the place of the men who served in the war. Once the war ended, however, women were expected to return to being housewives, leaving many frustrated after fostering new and fulfilling professional skills. 

It was during this time that Haslett left Cochran and became the first secretary of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) and the founder and editor of the society’s journal, The Woman Engineer. WES' influence quickly spread to the United States, Russia, and to the upper echelons of British society—even receiving support from the Viscountess Astor, who held a party for the WES with the Prince of Wales as the distinguished guest. 


Haslett Strove to 'Emancipate Women From Drudgery'

In 1924, Haslett established the Electrical Association for Women (EAW) with the goal of leveraging electricity to alleviate domestic chores for women. The society often solicited feedback from women on which electricity-powered household appliances would improve their lives, with suggestions including vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, and "quick boiling lids for saucepans." To this end, a key slogan of the EAW was "Emancipation From Drudgery".


Haslett advocated for the electrification of household appliances

Haslett advocated for the electrification of household appliances, so women could spend less time on household chores. Image used courtesy of Renishaw

Haslett’s achievement extended beyond the UK. She took part in various important engineering events, including the 1930 Berlin World Power Conference, where she met Albert Einstein. Haslett's participation at this event, particularly her talent for breaking down technological inventions in common terms, inspired the German Women's Engineering Society. Haslett traveled to the U.S. in 1936, where she toured the Edison Museum and met Henry Ford to discuss the state of electricity for domestic use. 


Haslett's Rise to Leadership

When World War II struck, Haslett served as the sole woman on a 20-person committee organized by the Institution of Electrical Engineers to assess electrical installations in post-war England. In this role, Haslett recommended that a new plug and socket standard be protected by shutters for the safety of young children. Her recommendations resulted in the BS 1363, a British standard for common single-phase AC power plugs and sockets, and the ring circuit system. 

In 1941, the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) invited Haslett to speak at a meeting on the subject of women in the industry, which earned Haslett a silver medal from the society. She later served as the first councilwoman of the RSA. She also served as the WES president from 1940 to 1941. In 1947, she became a member of the British Electricity Authority and was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. The British Electrical Development Association elected Haslett as vice president in 1948 and as the first chairwoman in 1953. 

Haslett also served as the president of the International Federation of Business and Professional Women, a role that allowed her to meet President Truman at the White House in 1952. 


Haslett met President Truman

Haslett met President Truman at the White House in 1952. Image used courtesy of NAEST and the Institute of Engineering and Technology


An Enduring Legacy

Haslett officially retired from her many official duties in 1956 and passed peacefully in 1957 with her sister at her bedside. 

Dame Caroline Haslett’s professional endeavors and her unwavering dedication to gender equality left an indelible mark on the engineering landscape. Her legacy continues to inspire engineers worldwide, fostering inclusion, diversity, and equality in STEM-related fields. One of Haslett's favorite quotes by French novaliist Emile Zola displayed prominently at the EAW headquarters echoes her mission nearly a century later: 

“The day will come when electricity will be for everyone as the waters of the rivers and the wind of the heaven. It should not be merely supplied but lavished, that men may use it at their will, as the air they breath.”

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