Gendered Power: Hydroelectric and Nuclear Energy Transitions in the Tennessee River Valley

Saturday, January 6, 2018
Atrium (Marriott Wardman Park)
Rachel Lanier Taylor, University of Washington
Most now recognize that the effects of climate change will lead to a global move away from high CO2-emitting forms of energy and that such a transition is overdue. Few, however, realize the role that gender will play in this transition. This poster presents an environmental and gender history of transitions to hydroelectric and nuclear power consumption in the United States. Taking the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) as a case study, it emphasizes the gendered ideologies that influenced national and regional energy policies and examines how hydroelectric and nuclear energy production shaped men’s and women’s lives in quite material ways. Cold war masculinity, for example, led to a willingness among male policymakers to take risks, which shaped the expansion of nuclear power plants. Furthermore, the material effects of hydroelectricity served to separate the labor men and women in the Tennessee River valley. Dams increased cases of malaria and reduced farm sizes, revealing that an unhealthy environment coupled with a decline in the need for women’s farm labor pushed them into their homes. TVA promoters even claimed through conditioning indoor environments with electrical heating and cooling, it made women more beautiful.

The poster engages important conversations in environmental and social history. Scholars have recently begun to engage the relationship between energy production and social division. Andrew Needham, for example, explores how electrical infrastructure served to reinforce race and class divisions in Phoenix and on the Navajo Reservation, while Kate Brown’s study of the Hanford plant in Washington, briefly explores issues of gender in nuclear power production. Social historians, like Alice Kessler-Harris, have explored the role that a “gendered imagination” played in shaping public policies that appear neutral on their face. Yet overall, connections between gender and environment remain underexplored. This poster builds upon recent work while, through its careful engagement with the material landscape, developing new insights. It is the first study to foreground the ways in which the material and landscape changes instigated by energy production differentially affected men’s and women’s lives in a particular location. The environmental dangers of radiation for pregnant women, for example, may be linked to strict gender divisions in the TVA’s nuclear plant workspace as well as hiring practices that encouraged the employment of single rather than married women. Birth defects were more visible than the effects of radiation experienced by men. TVA plant managers, therefore, had reason to police female workers’ sexuality.

Beyond its contributions to historical scholarship, this study is relevant to contemporary policymaking. Through showing how gender and energy policy have shaped one another in the past, the poster calls attention to the need to evaluate the gendered implications of energy transitions today. It insists that energy alternatives should not be seen as simply technological or scientific decisions, but as choices that both reflect and shape gendered relations of power.

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