The surprising impact of the domestic economy, from industry to diplomacy

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Rachel Newcomb

THE WASHINGTON POST — For most of us, the phrase “home economics” probably conjures up images of post-war high school classes designed to launch young women into their married life, fully armed with sewing skills and in soufflé making. But home economics has a much more complicated and sometimes surprising past. In The Secret History of Home Economics: How Pioneering Women Harnessed the Power of the Home and Changed the Way We Livejournalist Danielle Dreilinger unravels the complex story beyond the stereotypes of ‘wiggle and stitch’.

Dreilinger’s lively account offers an in-depth look at a profession that enabled women to participate in public life even when they were excluded from most jobs and fields of study. Throughout the history of the field, there was a constant tension between those who sought to elevate home economics to a serious and scientific level and others who saw it as merely women’s work.

After the Civil War, women found themselves in mixed land grants, and historically black colleges could study “domestic science,” which taught farming skills necessary for survival in agricultural areas. In some universities, this has allowed women to study science. Ellen Richards, one of the founders of the discipline, managed to achieve “special student” status at MIT while studying chemistry in the 1870s.

After graduating, she embarked on “her life’s work: improving the home, and therefore society, through science.” The power of science could be harnessed to promote healthy living through nutrition, but also to educate smart consumers. As corporations increased mass production in the 1920s, women with degrees in home economics pursued careers in business, in consumer-oriented industries ranging from food production to department stores.

The field was renamed “home economics” in 1899, linking it to economics and suggesting serious thinking about the purpose of domestic spaces now that “the Industrial Revolution had definitively eliminated the home as a site of economic production”. Many of the profession’s early theorists believed that home economics should be tied to progressive social causes. The first household economists were consumer activists, who sought to “protect the working class and urban poor from unscrupulous merchants selling shoddy fabrics and clothing, bacteria-infested meat from filthy slaughterhouses and bleached flour.
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Home economics demonstrated its usefulness to the American war effort in both World Wars, with specialists employed by the federal government to work in food preservation and to organize the production of uniforms and surgical supplies for the ‘army. Eleanor Roosevelt added further importance to the profession by singling out the work of home economists for celebration and inspiration as “an education in democracy”.

Dreilinger paid considerable attention to the contributions African American women made to the home economy, even though they were kept out of mainstream white organizations until the 1960s. As early as the 1890s, educators such that Margaret Murray Washington, the third wife of Tuskegee Institute founder Booker T Washington, developed home science as a way “to educate moral leaders who would uplift their communities.” Another prominent African-American leader, Flemmie Kittrell, who earned a doctorate in nutrition from Cornell University in the 1930s and taught at Howard University, was sent by the State Department to Liberia to studying malnutrition and spent the 1940s and 1950s traveling and consulting in other countries. of the developing world.

During the Cold War, home economics was a tool in the United States’ anti-Communist arsenal, a means of exporting “free market abundance and Western-style democracy around the world, of transforming geopolitics modernizing the house”. Yet the field had its regressive side at home: school administrators across the country often sent girls of color into home economics to better prepare them for careers as domestics or, in the case of Chicana girls in California, as “maids, teenage mothers, laundresses and factory seamstresses”.

By the 1950s, the battle for the soul of the profession was beginning to tilt in favor of those who insisted that its purpose was to educate women for marriage. Home economics has been officially defined by the American Home Economics Association (AHEA) as “the field of knowledge and services primarily concerned with strengthening family life”. Surveys from the time show that the majority of home economics majors planned to become housewives, while women who wanted to study other subjects were no longer limited to science. These associations with home and hearth virtually guaranteed that the field would be a target of the feminist movement in the 1970s. Even as the AHEA endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment and attempted to rehabilitate its image by insisting on its relevance in modern life, young women with professional ambitions began to drift away from the profession.

We can thank home economics for a number of taken-for-granted features of contemporary life, from the Head Start preschool program to school lunches and freeze-dried mixes for prepared foods (a by-product of home economists’ research on the best astronaut rate). Dreilinger finds that today, the field may even be experiencing a small resurgence, with more male involvement. Partially revamped in that teaching life skills, compulsory home economics in schools, she argued, could help narrow the gender gap that makes women responsible for the bulk of the housework. Adhering to this old progressive strain, Dreilinger stressed that home economics “is, can, and should be an interdisciplinary and ecological field that explores the connections between our homes and the world with a view to addressing the root causes of problems such as hunger, homelessness, isolation and environmental devastation”.

It’s a noble task, to be sure, but one that wouldn’t be out of step with the often surprisingly progressive past of home economics.

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