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The Architect as Shopper: Women, electricity, building products and the interwar ‘proprietary turn’ in the UK
‘When she was a suffrage worker… [Ellen Wilkinson] believed that the twin keys to women’s earthly paradise were the Vote and Electricity’
This paper looks at the ‘proprietary turn’ in the 1930s in the UK, that both supported the massive expansion in the development and marketing of building products, and formalised the architect’s role in their distribution. Whilst the turn’s significance was widely recognised and debated at the time, it is largely forgotten in histories of the period.
The focus here is on its impact on women’s lives. On the one hand, through intensive marketing, it transformed them into the consumers of the vast new range of building products from paints to boliers, from bricks to electrical appliances and installations. On the other, it recruited them to roles in the industry, because of their special capacity to communicate with female consumers and increase sales. Moreover, electricity and the new building products were widely understood (by industrialists and activists alike) to have emancipatory potential for women. I will argue that although the aim was industrial and economic expansion, the proprietary turn nevertheless brought about opportunities for women, including their entry into the architectural profession.
Katie Lloyd Thomas is a Senior Lecturer in Architecture and co-director of the Architectural Research Collaborative at Newcastle University. She is an editor of the international journal Architectural Research Quarterly (Cambridge University Press) and a steering group member of the Architectural Humanities Research Association. She has lectured and published widely on materiality and technology in architecture; edited collections include Industries of Architecture with Tilo Amhoff and Nick Beech (Routledge Critiques, 2015) and Material Matters: Architecture and Material Practice (Routledge, 2007). Katie is a founder member of the feminist collective taking place www.takingplace.org.uk and her publications on feminist theory and practice include ‘Between the Womb and the World: Building Matrixial Relations in the NICU’ in Architectural Relational Ecologies, ed. Peg Rawes (Routledge, 2013) and ‘Feminist Hydro-logics in Joan Slonczewski’s A Door Into Ocean’ in Landscript 5, ‘Material Culture’ ed. Jane Hutton (Jovis, forthcoming). Much of her current research explores contexts – real and imagined - where gender and technology intersect.
 Introduction to the labour activist and politician Ellen Wilkinson before her annual address to the Electrical Association for Women in 1934, as reported in Electrical Age for Women, no.2, 1934, p.653.
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