Louisan Mamer, known as the First Lady of the REA, spearheaded the expansion of women’s roles in business and leadership through her work with the Rural Electrification Administration. “Louisan Mamer, a Lifetime at the REA.” Archives Center, Louisan E. Mamer Rural Electrification Administration Papers (AC0862-0000006)
Although women’s empowerment can have a revolutionary effect on society, it doesn’t always look like a revolution. Today, organizations like UN Women work to empower women in rural areas through economic programs that help them “claim their rights to land, leadership, opportunities, and choices” and “participate in shaping laws, policies, and programmes.” For rural women in the mid-1900s United States, one force for change was an organization that few today may think of as a vehicle for empowerment: the Rural Electrification Administration (REA). Clara O. Nale, who worked in home electrification during this period, remarked that rural electrification “has really started a peaceful revolution—particularly in the farm kitchen.” While Nale made this comment in reference to electricity’s transformation of the practice of homemaking, her words also describe how electrification efforts such as the REA expanded women’s autonomy and opportunities.
The REA was a government program created under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal during the Great Depression, and its goal was to bring electricity to rural America. The REA provided loans to farmers so they could buy expensive electric appliances. In addition to the loan program, the REA tried to spark rural Americans’ interest in electrification with educational outreach like the Electric Circus, a traveling carnival-like event to teach rural families about electric appliances. The effort was extremely successful, as the percent of electrified farms leaped from only 3.2% in 1925, to 90% by 1950.
The REA’s very first “home electrification specialist,” Louisan Mamer, was a pioneer for women’s leadership in this organization. Coming from a family that included 12 home economists, or professionals in the study of homemaking and family development, Mamer wrote in the magazine Practical Home Economics that her “background was, as astrologers would put it, propitious to home economics.” She grew up in Hardin, Southern Illinois, on a farm without electricity, where she did farm labor to pay her way to the University of Illinois. After graduating with a home economics degree in 1931, Mamer worked as a home economics teacher in DeKalb and then as a writer for the National Youth Administration, a New Deal program providing work and education for youth. In 1935 Mamer joined the REA. Her work, combined with the agency’s larger efforts to electrify rural areas, gave women across the United States new opportunities to work professionally and take on leadership roles.
It’s easy to overlook the many ways that the REA empowered rural women in midcentury America, in large part because the agency’s publications and advertising embraced conservative views of women’s identities and role in society. One telling quote published by the REA says that “the woman on an electrified farm, along with all the other women on farms and women in the cities of America,