Sunday, April 25, 2021

The Secret History of Home Economics: How Trailblazing Women Harnessed the Power of Home and Changed the Way We Live

Here's a fun fact: when I was getting my degree in Latin (with a minor in Ancient Greek), I seriously considered picking up a minor in home economics so I could teach it. Before that, I was accepted into a journalism program at Bowling Green. My ability to pick  moribund career choices was epic. 

The first chapter of this posits that everything the reader knows about home ec is wrong. The reason this book just broke my heart is that I knew just about all of the history in this book already. What I really should have studied was women's history, but that wasn't really a field when I was in college. 

Home economics could save the world. It won't, because no matter how hard women try to use the field for good, men always seem to wreck it. I wish that we still had home ec. This is a brilliant work of women's history. 

Dreilinger, Danielle. The Secret History of Home Economics: How Trailblazing Women Harnessed the Power of Home and Changed the Way We Live
May 4th 2021 by W. W. Norton Company
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Even before Seneca Falls in 1848, there was Catharine Beecher's A Treatise on Domestic Economy. In 1841, this was the start of a long road to industrialize and professionalize the art of homemaking. Women were just starting to be allowed to go to colleges, although this was almost always a struggle. Graduating from high school in 1862, Ellen Swallow wanted more education, and got into the newly created Vassar college, where she studied under astronomer Maria Mitchell. Later, she went to MIT and became the first female instructor there. Born at the time Swallow graduated from high school, Margaret Murray, a Black women from the south, went to Fisk College and got a job at Tuskegee, where she met, and later married, Booker T. Washington. 

This was just a start to the home economics movement. It gained a lot of momentum at the Lake Placid Conference in 1899, where Anna Dewey (wife of the disgraced Melvil of library fame) and Ellen Richards gathered leaders in the field and started making plans for the modern study of home economics, where science would improve home life, and therefore society. 

This exquisitely well-researched book covers the field of home economics from its beginnings, through its floruit in the early 1900s, its degradation at the hands of men after WWII when women were forced out of the work force, and into the present day. It discusses the Nation at Risk Report of April, 1983 (tragically, right before I graduated from high school!), that said that the US was behind and needed to stop teaching silly things like phys ed and home ec, which lead right into the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act that is responsible for the US educational systems insistence on testing. 

Within these different eras of the science of home ec, Dreilinger introduces us to a wide range of pioneering women who changed the way work was done in the home. From the team of Flora Rose and Martha Van Rensselaer studying food science at Cornell to the omnipresent Black scientist and activist Flemmie Pansy Kittrell to the famous Lillian Moller Gilbreth, we see these women highlighted against the times in which they lived. These women come from diverse backgrounds; one of the women of whom I had never heard was Fabiola Cabeza de Baca Gilbert, who started as an extension agent in New Mexico in the Hispano community and went on to be an influential writer and activist. The book addresses, through these women, the troubled history of the treatment of women of color by women who were trying to further the cause of women. Given how difficult it is to find information on some of these groups, this inclusion is even more impressive. 

Home economics hasn't, at least in the last fifty years, been given its due. Reading this book almost a year into the Covid-19 pandemic, I felt that given a chance, home economics could save the world. Helping families make the most of their resources, both human and financial, is what home economics is about. If university departments still existed in this field, even if it survived under the aegis of "family and consumer sciences", wouldn't there be scientists who could figure out how to provide child care, early education, and conscious consumerism alongside nutritious meals that would also save the environment? 

Sadly, men got involved. The post-war climate persuaded women to go back to the home, and while more women majored in the field, fewer graduated in it, and jobs went unfilled. Because it was largely a women's field, budgets were cut. Home ec became something that was seen as just "sewing and stirring", and not as a field that taught crucial techniques for managing family life. 

This is an excellent book on women's history, and one that should be in every high school and middle school library. It's a bit dense, and I was saddened that there weren't pictures of these long uncelebrated figures, but this is a book that could launch a thousand National History Day projects. I want a middle grade biography on Flemmie Kittrell, for starters! As society starts to appreciate historical figures of color and other marginalized people, I hope that we see more books celebrating women who changed the way people live their daily lives.

I loved that this book ended with a solid plan for bringing home ec back into schools. It is an excellent idea, and it would help our society to teach all students crucial skills and make them realize that taking care of a home is a worthy accomplishment for everyone, and encompasses, even though it includes, much more than being able to thread a needle, wash the floors, and put a nutritious meal on the table. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for reviewing this book, which I will have to find and read. My grandmother graduated from Berea College with a degree in Home Economics and she was an amazing person. My mom told me that during the depression,my grandmother would get up every morning and make biscuits for her 6 kids and plenty to give out to the hobos who came in a steady stream. And yes, my mom said their house was marked, just like they say in books and movies.