Histories of Women and Energy

Workshop Report (23–25 April 2019, Rachel Carson Center, Munich)

By Ruth Sandwell and Abigail Harrison Moore

Why Women and Energy?

As people around the world slowly take in the connections between the energy-related practices of their daily lives and the planetary threat posed by fossil-fuel-induced climate change, historians are becoming increasingly aware of energy as a discrete force in shaping and changing societies over time. In a parallel move, scholars within energy studies are increasingly acknowledging the importance of the social and historical contexts, as well as the technological and economic, within which energy transitions occur. But the social history of energy transitions remains under-developed, and particularly with regard to gender. We now have a rich and growing analysis of men’s inventions, men’s labor, and men’s planning and development of systems for financing, organizing, selling, running, repairing, and maintaining the new networks of power, particularly electricity, oil, and gas, as well as some very good analyses of the political and economic implications of energy transitions. Though undeniably important topics, and ones that have intersected with women’s lives directly and indirectly, current studies have not left much room for either describing or theorizing the relationships that women have had with their environments, their families, and society more generally through the energy that they produced, processed, and consumed to support themselves and (typically) their families, nor how these changed through a variety of energy transitions.

Why a Workshop Approach?

Our workshop explored a rich variety of ways in which gender and energy have intersected in women’s lives in some distinct and often gender-specific ways. These included women’s pivotal roles in the consumption and production of energy in the home; their engagement with and responses to particular energy transitions; women’s changing energy-related identities, behaviors, and experiences, including inequalities and exclusions, as well as their collectivities and associations; gender-specific normativity and exceptionalism in energy-related behaviours; women as political energy activists; factors influencing women’s energy decisions, as well as their culpability and victimization through energy; the role of energy objects, aesthetics, and materiality; and women’s engagement with time and teleology through their energy practices. And all of the contributors addressed research methodologies and conceptual approaches to examining the varying and dynamic roles and places of women in energy history. The need to develop and discuss thematic issues within this emerging field of women and energy was one of the main reasons that Ruth and Abigail approached the Rachel Carson Center, where Ruth is currently a fellow. There they could bring together a group of researchers who represent a very diverse set of disciplines, approaches and geographies, to form a working group early on in the thinking and writing process, to enable us to think collectively in a shared, respectful and thought-provoking space. Ruth’s own experience in editing Powering Up Canada, an award-winning collection published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in 2016, had already suggested that bringing scholars together to discuss their carefully selected works-in-progress is a particularly fruitful way of identifying key themes, issues and points of confluence, and disagreement, within a nascent field of study. Our workshop has proved again that this approach works.


The Workshop Experience

We asked each contributor to both prepare a draft paper and to develop a short presentation that would remind colleagues of the key themes and enable us to share thought-provoking images. We also asked that every colleague prepare some points to start the discussion, via a close reading of one paper, drawing out questions and challenges. This process ensured that lively debate happened throughout, and not always in the directions that we had anticipated as workshop organizers. As we were trying to develop a somewhat different approach to the standard seminar, conference, or workshop, and to the potential edited volume that we aim to produce, we thought it would be useful to give a summary of the program:


We believe the program, as described, worked very well for a number of reasons:

By ensuring that colleagues worked and socialized together throughout the 2.5 days, we were able to both focus in on the details of each paper and discuss in a collaborative and encouraging manner how our individual contributions, drawn from different disciplines, academic experiences, periods and places, mapped against or opened up new questions for the group. The process of encouraging all colleagues to have read the papers, and enabling one person to start the conversation, was very effective to developing a set of questions, themes, and approaches that we will draw on throughout our intended publications: an volume of RCC Perspectives, and an edited volume for McGill Queens University Press. We illustrate the whiteboard below as a way of showing you how diverse and exciting the potential pathways forward are.


Building in opportunities to eat together also ensured that our conversations could continue in a more informal way beyond the seminar room, and enabled us all to get to know each other really well. We also encouraged colleagues to start their papers with a short “journey to how I came to the workshop” in terms of academic and individual life experiences.

The chances to engage with the life and community of the Rachel Carson Center were vital to helping us understand how our work fits into the intellectual project of the wide range of environmental programs and projects that the RCC supports and to share our work beyond the seminar room.

The incredibly generous encouragement of the editor of Perspectives, Katie Ritson, to think together about how we might reflect our work in Munich in a publication, will help us discuss publically both the process and the outcomes of this workshop, which will then form the basis of the scholarly volume.

We would all like to conclude that the generosity and support of the Rachel Carson Center and the wonderful team of students and staff there who helped facilitate this international workshop—from booking flights from across the world, to providing every type of snack we could have wished for—has made this process of writing a new history of women and energy in a collaborative and collective way, both possible and incredibly re-energizing (pun intended!) for us all.


3 Comments on “Histories of Women and Energy

  1. Pingback: Histories of Women and Energy – Maryse Helbert

  2. Pingback: SoftMachine.net | The Current War: there were also dynamic women who made electricity a success

  3. Pingback: The Current War: there were also dynamic women who made electricity a success – Xtory

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