Energy Blog: The Farm Woman’s Dream, 100 Years Later

Jun 29, 2020

by Michael E. Webber

In June 1920, 100 years ago this month, The University of Missouri issued a poster as part of a campaign to encourage farm owners to modernize their water systems. It is aptly titled “The Farm Woman’s Dream,” and shows a woman—presumably poor and dressed in ragged clothes—carrying water without gloves from a hand-pumped well in the freezing cold along an icy path uphill towards her house and barn. The poster’s text makes the following encouragement:
 
Make Your Dream Come True
Consult Your
County Agent
or Write to Your
College of Agriculture
For Information on
Water Supply Systems
For Farm Homes
 
The dreary image evokes a sense of hard labor associated with getting water into our homes. In the upper part of the poster is the farm woman’s purported dream: She is smiling, nicely dressed in short sleeves and colorful shoes, comfortably indoors, opening spigots at a sink, with hot water coming out, its steam curling to the ceiling. The poster is targeted at women, not men, a telling example of who endured the greatest burden from not having access to modernized systems, and who would reap the greatest benefit from modern improvements.

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The burdened, vulnerable woman in the rural United States a century ago, struggling to fetch water, is not much different than the burdened, vulnerable woman in sub-Saharan Africa today. 

For those women, their dream—the solution—is the same: a modern water system (with pipes and pumps) and a modern energy system, including electricity to drive the pumps and fuels to heat the water, can lessen the tedium of chores. Just as access to water and energy liberated that American farm woman, so it would for the billion plus people around the world who do not have electricity or piped water today. Novel electrical appliances such as the dishwasher and washing machine provided women in the United States with even more freedom.

Water is difficult to pump by hand because it is so dense: it weighs 8.34 pounds per gallon. A typical person needs at least a few gallons per day for drinking. Add in a few more gallons for personal hygiene and yet again a few gallons for cooking and cleaning. The muscle power needed to raise that water out of a well or to crank the hand-pump is nontrivial. For a typical American, among the world’s most profligate water users, typical usage in the home is 150 gallons per day because of watering our lawns, filling our pools, and our long hot showers in addition to our basic needs.

Imagine pumping that water by hand, the way it once was. In poorer parts of the world that reality still reigns. In Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, it is usually the responsibility of women or girls to fetch the water. Those women and girls miss hours of work or school each day to get water from far away, carrying the heavy jugs of water balanced on their heads or hanging from bars resting on their shoulders to cover a distance of over a mile between the well and the school.

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Once they have the water, they are not done, as the water needs to be treated before it can be drunk. In remote villages where piped water systems and centralized water treatment with electrical pumps and other advanced techniques are not available, water is treated the old-fashioned way: it must be boiled. There’s a similar story for getting fuel: women often have to collect fuel from remote areas, and again they are vulnerable to assault along the way. In many parts of the world, women and girls spend 1.4 hours per day collecting fuelwood, which keeps them out of school. Using modern energy to spare girls the effort of those laborious chores gives them a chance for more school-based education.

When they return after having fetched water and fuels, they need to use the fuels to boil the water. Those fuels—including crop residues, animal waste such as cow dung, wood, and untreated coal—are burned in stoves used for cooking and heating. Unfortunately, the dirty, inefficient cookstoves perform badly, producing indoor air pollution that has been linked to the premature death of about 2.5 million women and children every year. In other words, antiquated energy and water systems literally deprive girls of their education because of time spent away from school fetching water and kill women by the millions. Such archaic, labor-intensive and dirty approaches to energy and water take a toll on prosperity and economic opportunity.

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In many places, the world’s poorest women are also traditionally responsible for planting and harvesting crops, milling grain, and fulfilling household chores. These responsibilities leave little time for an education or employment outside the home. Even if they could go to school, they might not have the lights they need to read books at night to study or have to miss hours of school to fetch water. In turn, they have few or no opportunities to work, earn an income, and gain independence, which perpetuates poverty. Although the scenario I described sounds like something from the developing world somewhere far away, as the poster demonstrates, it is also part of the American experience in the not-too-distant past.

At the 100th anniversary of the promotional poster, it’s fair to say that in the United States the Farm Woman’s Dream is now a universal reality. But since not everyone shares the benefits of energy and water access around the world, there is much still to do. If we invest in improving our energy and water systems, then that will benefit women, and therefore all of humanity, globally.
 
MICHAEL E. WEBBER is the Josey Centennial Professor of Energy Resources at the University of Texas at Austin and chief science and technology officer at ENGIE, a global energy company headquartered in Paris, France. This essay is based partly on an excerpt from “Power Trip: The Story of Energy” (Basic Books, 2019), which was turned into a 6-part documentary series of the same name on PBS, Amazon Prime and AppleTV.

To watch a video about the “Farm Woman’s Dream,” go to https://www.pbs.org/video/farm-womans-dream-kqswcn/
 

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