Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Gas and Water Feminism: Maud Adeline Brereton and Edwardian Domestic Technology

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Gas and Water Feminism: Maud Adeline Brereton and Edwardian Domestic Technology

Article excerpt

On an afternoon in October 1913, with Christabel Pankhurst still commanding the militant suffragettes from Paris, while Annie Kenny starved in a London goal, and as politicians and constitutional suffragists continued to denounce the Women's Social and Political Union's recent arson campaign,(1) Maud Adeline Brereton stood before an audience of businessmen and engineers to present the "woman's point of view on domestic and social problems."(2) Amidst the controversies over women's rights, Brereton appealed to her all-male audience to assist women in their struggle for social and economic emancipation by first liberating them from the "soul-killing drudgery" of domestic labour and allowing them to direct their intelligence and energy to more productive ends. It was a bold suggestion to put before the generally conservative membership of the British Commercial Gas Association. And she knew it.

Given her hectic work schedule, including editorship of the B.C.G.A. monthly publicity circulars and preparations for the industry's concurrent Centenary Exhibition, Brereton had not discussed her speech with either the president or the executive of the B.C.G.A.; neither had she consulted with her editorial staff nor her immediate supervisor, B.C.G.A. general manager, William Mason. After absolving her male colleagues from any possible controversy her remarks might elicit, Brereton forewarned her audience that, "I alone am responsible for my views and suggestions; and I stand up here individually as food for argumentative powder--nothing more dangerous, I trust."(3) Brereton's platitudes assured the gasmen that, although she was a confident, professional woman, no militant suffragette had seized the podium at their annual convention.

Nonetheless, although Maud Adeline Brereton carefully distanced herself from the incendiary sisterhood, she upheld an agenda for social change that was both feminist and political. She anticipated that the widespread adoption of gas technology in the home would precipitate a "domestic revolution" for women of all classes. For Brereton, "the science of housekeeping and public health" were interrelated; affordable domestic technology offered a solution to a host of social problems, including maternal and infant health, urban sanitation, and inadequate housing.(4) Contemporary women's organizations, notably the Women's Co-operative Guild and the Women's Labour League, shared her preoccupation with health and housing, articulating the need for improved services.(5) The Fabian Women's Group condemned the "detestable" economic conditions of domestic toil as they existed for both paid servants and unpaid housewives, wherein female labour was underpaid and undervalued by "the State." While the Fabian feminists agreed that economic independence in the form of mothers' endowments might elevate the status of women's domestic work, they also considered the possibility that "improved conditions of household management" would ease the domestic burden, enabling more women to work outside the home.(6) Brereton's feminis activity remains distinct because she consciously chose to work, not through politicized organizations as did her Edwardian contemporaries, but from within the private corporate sector.

Existing studies of female participation in the sanitary reform movement overlook Maud Adeline Brereton, as do the histories of the gas industry.(7) Architectural historian Annmarie Adams has shown that a previous generation of middle-class Victorian feminists, in conjunction with medical doctors, openly criticized housing conditions as they existed for an income levels. Concerned with health reform, domestic science, and housing, feminist interior designers like Rhoda and Agnes Garrett, initiated debates over the relationships between architecture, sanitation, and women's health; debates which politicized the home as both a source and a spatial expression of feminine power.(8) Maud Adeline Brereton's work continued this earlier feminist campaign for safe, sanitary, and efficient domestic architecture. …

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