Rural Electric Women
By the early 1900s electric lights were commonplace in towns and cities with electric generating stations. But the power ended just outside of town. The countryside was black, save for the occasional kerosene lamp lighting a dingy window. President Teddy Roosevelt, concerned, about the stagnant pace of the rural economy, commissioned a study about life on the farm. In 1909 the Country Life Commission stated in its report, “Life on the farm was drudgery and even more burdensome on the farm wife than for the farmer himself.”
Hence, it was the women who were most eager to bring rural electrification to the farm through the creation of electric co-ops. In Wisconsin, four such women served as original incorporators of their local co-ops in 1938: Bertha Krueger and Catherine Martin at Jump River Electric and Mrs. Robert McNutt and Mrs. Leonard Huber at Adams–Marquette Electric. A 1985 Wisconsin REC News article captured some of the thoughts of two of these pioneers.
Worth Working For
Mrs. Robert McNutt, an Adams–Marquette director during the co-op’s first four years, remembered that one of the first steps on the path to central station electric service was to meet with Orland (Spike) Loomis, head of the Rural Electrification Coordination office.
“And that,” she said, “is when we first realized what a tremendous job it was going to be to provide electricity in rural areas. He told us what we would have to do and it was up to us to decide if we wanted to do it.”
They did want to do it, and Mrs. McNutt believed one of the reasons that she was willing to work was the memory of the six lamps that used to light their house. “Every evening it was my job to light them,” she recalled, “and every morning I had to clean and fill them. It was a lot of work—enough work to convince me electricity was worth working for.”
As she related the early struggles to sign up members and organize her cooperative, Mrs. Leonard B. Huber commented on the 1939 startup of electric service, “It was a happy Christmas that year for the rural families that could turn the lights on in their homes, yards, and Christmas trees.” She recalled the uphill work that was required in calling on and convincing potential members to sign for membership in the new cooperative.
Closing a Gap
Interestingly, our records show that once the startup phase of Wisconsin co-op operations was complete, within a few years no women could be found serving on electric co-op boards of directors. In fact, there was a 35-year span—from 1943 to 1978—where distribution co-ops here counted no women as board members. The gap finally closed with the election of Rebecca Gutzman as a Columbus Rural Electric director in 1978.
Today women have an increasing interest in serving on electric co-op boards; we count 25 women currently serving as directors of Wisconsin electric cooperatives. Many more women are choosing careers in rural electrification, holding positions of general manager, financial officer, accountant, and in jobs with responsibilities for marketing, communications, customer service, operations, and line work to name a few of the opportunities. I encourage many young people to consider a career and for co-op members to get involved with their electric cooperatives.
It’s the committed people—women and men—who make electric cooperatives the member-friendly providers of service that they are.