“Everything you know about home economics is wrong”

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The coronavirus era has brought renewed attention to the job of running a household. Stories of a resurgence in cooking and sewing flooded the media, and domestic work became part of the national infrastructure conversation.

In her new book, “The Secret History of Home Economics: How Trailblazing Women Harnessed the Power of Home and Changed the Way We Live,” freelance journalist Danielle Dreilinger writes that the founders of “home economics”—a course you you may have attended middle school – were among the first to recognize the economic value of such housework.

Click on the audio player above to hear Dreilinger’s conversation with “Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal. The following is an excerpt from the book.

Everything You Know About Home Economics Is Wrong

When you imagine the founder of home economics, who do you see? Betty Crocker, Donna Reed? A white man with a handlebar mustache staring at women to keep them in their place? A stern, conservative teacher with 1950s glasses, teaching girls how to chore – someone like Dolores Umbridge, only less evil?

Try a white female chemist, Ellen Swallow Richards, the first woman to attend MIT, who believed fervently in the power of science to free women from “drudgery.” “My life must be one of active combat,” she wrote. Try a famous black woman, Margaret Murray Washington, who thought home improvements could end racial inequality.

That’s all you need to know to realize that everything you think about home economics is wrong. Home economics was more than baking lumpy blueberry muffins, sewing throw pillows, or carrying a sack of flour in a baby sling to learn the dangers of parenthood. In its purest form, home economics aimed to change the world through the household.

Home economists have educated and inspired waves of women who have built scientific careers by helping people live better lives. Together they built an empire of jobs and influence. They are the origin of food groups, the federal poverty line, the consumer protection movement, clothing care labels, school lunches, the discipline of women’s studies and the Rice Krispies Treat. They were the first to measure the economic value of housework and the amount of physical effort it required. They have enabled millions of people around the world to survive horrific deprivation. They had the ear of presidents, first ladies and queens. They helped win wars. Their work was as vast as the battlefield and on a scale as intimate as calorie counting. All in a pragmatic empiricism, with an eye on careers. Home economists have created tens of thousands of jobs — not just in high school classrooms, but in labs, colleges, government agencies, and business departments. For decades, there was always a job for a home economist. For decades, the profession was even respected.

Thanks to home economics, Gladys Gary Vaughn went from segregated Florida to a doctorate and a career that included the civil rights office of the United States Department of Agriculture and the presidency of a large international volunteer organization. “The nation has benefited from it. They laughed it off. But they took advantage of it,” she said.

Home economics has been a back door for women to access science; part of a surprisingly large government-backed movement; a guilt trip for women left behind by homemaking; a trap or springboard for colored women; a sometimes ironic, sometimes nostalgic preoccupation with third-wave feminists; a conservative business card; an aesthetic obsession with the Instagram set; a feminist battleground; and the site of countless anxieties about women’s lives.

A revival seems terribly overdue. The last twenty years have seen countless DIY blogs, the Food Network and Project Runway, Instagram and Pinterest, eco-friendly slow fashion and knitted beanies. We live in the midst of high-pressure parenting, financial and environmental crises, the return of vo-tech education, “adulthood” stress, and women continuing to carve out the lion’s share home work. In response to a global pandemic, people have stripped supermarkets of flour and big box stores of sewing machines. Why hasn’t home economics come back? Practitioners will tell you: because it never disappeared. Although most people think it went the eight-way route, the home economy is, albeit diminished, still there.

Excerpt from “The Secret History of Home Economics: How Pioneering Women Harnessed the Power of the Home and Changed Our Way of Life” by Danielle Dreilinger. Copyright © 2021 by Danielle Dreilinger. Used with permission from the publisher, WW Norton & Co. Inc. All rights reserved.

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