Did Home Economics Empower Women? 

Of all the paradoxes in the paradoxical field known as home economics, perhaps the most peculiar is the practice house, with its practice baby. Colleges and universities that offered home-ec majors—and there were many in the twentieth century, including historically Black colleges, land-grant universities, and Ivy League institutions—often had a cottage or an apartment on campus where female home-ec students could keep house. Some of them were preparing for careers in education or industry, but most saw home ec as training for their inevitable futures as wives and mothers. Often, practice-house life entailed caring for practice babies, actual human ones, lent by adoption agencies, orphanages, or sometimes the mothers themselves. At Cornell University, the students called their first practice baby—borrowed in 1920, when he was three weeks old—Dicky Domecon, for “domestic economy.” Couples looking to adopt were eager to get their hands on practice infants, figuring that these demonstration models had had a good start in life, doted on by a team of young women trained in up-to-date child-rearing techniques.

Yet the experiments were collectivist projects, nothing like the domestic lot of most American women, or the idealized futures that home ec touted. The students shared and traded off their infant-care duties equally, relieved by immersion in demanding science courses that fed their intellects. There were no men living in the homes to play the role of husband. As Danielle Dreilinger writes in her deeply researched and crisply written new book, “The Secret History of Home Economics: How Trailblazing Women Harnessed the Power of Home and Changed the Way We Live” (Norton), “practice homes looked less like the married, heterosexual, nuclear household for which they ostensibly prepared students than the feminist communes of a later era.”

Home economics was a movement that emerged in the late nineteenth century with high ambitions. Though it had precursors in the domestic-advice manuals of writers like Catharine Beecher, earlier in the century, the conference that officially heralded the discipline’s arrival was held in 1899, in Lake Placid, New York. For a field that sought to elevate the domestic sphere and women’s place in it by bringing science, efficiency, and professionalism to bear on household tasks, this was an auspicious time: the study of nutrition was coming into its own, with Wilbur Atwater’s work on the calorie as a unit of dietary measurement; colleges were, in some cases reluctantly, opening their doors to women; and urbanization and industrialization were generating the problems of public health, food purity, and sanitation which would preoccupy Progressive reformers.

But contradiction—“hypocrisy” is a word that Dreilinger uses at one point—characterized the field from the beginning. Maybe it characterizes every endeavor in which people are compelled to use the side door when they ought to be able to use the front. Women were always having to confect unnecessarily ingenious arguments for why they ought to be able to do something—go to school, hold a job, vote—and home economics was, in part, an elaborate argument for letting them acquire and demonstrate expertise. Its practitioners believed in science as a means to “liberate people from onerous and repetitive household labor,” Dreilinger writes. Home economists offered a feminism palatable to non-feminists, a social-reform vision that highlighted personal habits. They promoted training in baby care on a utopian model, as in the practice houses, but for the most part did not agitate for shared or government-subsidized child care. And there was a larger paradox. The early home economists, as the food historian Laura Shapiro has written, “chose domesticity as a way of getting out of the house.” The field eventually filled with worldly career women who told other women that it was best to stay home.

Who were these experts on the well-run home? For most of them, home economics represented the only way they could enter scientific fields. Ellen Swallow Richards, one of home ec’s founders, wanted to be a chemist, and managed to get M.I.T. to accept her as its first female student, in 1870, and later as its first female instructor. So that other women could study there, she talked philanthropists into funding a women’s laboratory for research into sanitation and nutrition—close enough to proper feminine pursuits, if you squinted. When Martha Van Rensselaer arrived at Cornell, in the first years of the twentieth century, she tried to persuade a skeptical bacteriology professor to admit her to his course, despite her sex, because she would use the knowledge to explain the importance of a clean dishcloth. (He replied that there was no need—just tell women it was “nicer” that way.) With a clever home-ec fix, Lillian Gilbreth was able to support her eleven children after her husband, Frank, an industrial engineer with whom she conducted time-motion studies, died suddenly, in 1924. Gilbreth, who was Berkeley’s first female valedictorian, transferred the couple’s signature efficiency advice from factories to homes, figuring that manufacturers would listen to a female engineering consultant if the subject was housework. (Among her contributions was a compact, L-shaped kitchen, which she designed with an eye to minimizing the number of steps a person had to take while preparing a meal.)

As Dreilinger shows, these home economists had remarkable pragmatic success. They created the seven food groups, the recommended daily allowances, and other approaches to virtuous eating. They invented clothing-care instruction labels, showed Americans how to stretch their food budget in wartime, sent agriculture-extension agents into thousands of rural homes to dispense advice to farmwives, and helped start the school-lunch program. They helped create brand avatars like Betty Crocker, dreamed up commercialized sources of homey advice like the Butterball hotline, and concocted reams of recipes. They produced the textbooks and other curricula on marriage and family life used by millions of secondary-school and college students—which made them especially influential in the nineteen-fifties, when such courses were among the more insistent peddlers of what Betty Friedan excoriated as the feminine mystique. Starting in the nineteen-seventies, though, home-ec teaching accommodated itself to second-wave feminism, becoming less “prescriptive” and “patriarchal,” Dreilinger says, and more sympathetic to working mothers.

Other writers have had a bit more fun than Dreilinger, a former education reporter, does with home ec’s very particular approach to food and eating. The field’s preoccupation with premium digestion and efficient deployment of calories, along with its commitment to dignifying appetite through science, meant that it had little to say about the sensual pleasures of the table. And its predilection for blandness and food that stayed obediently in one place on the plate led to an odd overreliance on gelatine, white sauce, and salads agglomerated with mayonnaise (potato, macaroni, Waldorf), as well as an abhorrence of strong odors and spices, not to mention lettuce. The first domestic scientists considered green salads an eccentricity enjoyed chiefly by Italian immigrants, with their Old World attachment to vegetables that, contrary to expert advice, had not been boiled at length to render them salubrious. In the wonderfully readable 1986 book “Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century,” Laura Shapiro writes, “There was virtually no cooked food that at one time or another was not hidden, purified, enriched, or ennobled with white sauce—among scientific cooks it became the most popular solution to the discomfiting problem of undressed food.”

Later, home ec collaborated cozily with the food industry, encouraging women to favor canned and frozen goods and cake mixes, and coming up with recipes that promised convenience and generated sales for their products—inventions that ranged from the sublime (Toll House cookies) to the ridiculous (Fritos prune whip). One that puzzled me for years as a child was the Mock Apple Pie recipe on the back of the Ritz-crackers box. Even then, I wondered what circumstance a person might find herself in where she had access to Ritz crackers, cream of tartar, and lemon juice, but absolutely none to apples.

It’s possible that some of the more baffling trends in home economics arose from a disconnect between the program’s designers and those it was meant to benefit. Many of home ec’s leading authorities on family life never married or had children. (Some, like Van Rensselaer and her colleague Flora Rose, who together ran a celebrated home-economics program at Cornell, lived in domestic partnerships with other women.) As teachers, college professors, business consultants, food chemists, nutritionists, radio hosts, and civil servants, they pursued full and active careers, unusual for the time. Those who did have husbands and children often employed domestic servants or enjoyed egalitarian marriages or both. Lillian Gilbreth hated to cook. Her children, two of whom went on to write the enduringly popular memoir of their family life, “Cheaper by the Dozen,” referred to the chipped-beef dish their mother made as DVOT, for Dog’s Vomit on Toast.

Dreilinger wants to give the movement its due, despite its culinary missteps, and admires it for doing the important work of trying to render housekeeping visible—worthy of notice and study. Yet, as she makes clear, it was also the province, for the most part, of educated, self-consciously modernizing white women, who often subtly and not so subtly disparaged the ways that other women—especially immigrants or Black and working-class women—had managed their households for generations. Reducing the dreaded drudgery meant identifying other women as drudges. Dreilinger notes that a few of the discipline’s founders, particularly Annie Dewey and her husband, Melvil, of the Dewey decimal system, were drawn to eugenics, and saw home economics as a way to stem the “race degeneration” of white Americans. (From white sauce to white supremacy in five easy steps.) The Lake Placid conference that launched the movement was held at a resort, run by the Deweys, that banned African-Americans and Jews. The American Home Economics Association continued to practice segregation for much of the twentieth century.

But Dreilinger also does much to showcase the work of Black home economists, such as Margaret Murray Washington, who, as “Lady Principal,” oversaw female students at the Tuskegee Institute, and who, like her husband, Booker T. Washington, believed in racial uplift through temperance and respectability—and thrifty housekeeping. Or Flemmie Pansy Kittrell, the daughter of North Carolina sharecroppers, who earned a doctorate in nutrition from Cornell and, starting in the nineteen-forties, travelled throughout Africa and Asia conducting nutrition surveys and advising schools. Among the home demonstration agents whom the U.S.D.A. dispatched to rural areas and the home economists who advised school-lunch programs, many saw their job as supplanting benighted folkways with Americanizing expertise, including plain, middle-class, homogenous cuisine. But Dreilinger found at least one adviser, Fabiola Cabeza de Baca Gilbert, a Latina extension agent working in New Mexico in the nineteen-thirties and forties, who saw value in indigenous traditions such as preserving food by dehydration—she loved the garlands of dried, wrinkled red chili peppers she saw in the homes she visited. (The service still recommended canning most fruits and vegetables.) In 1931, Cabeza de Baca produced “Historic Cookery,” a cookbook that featured recipes for dishes she’d eaten with her own family and collected from villagers in New Mexico, including chiles rellenos, the hominy soups known as pozoles, a sprouted-wheat pudding called panocha, and calabacitas (summer squash) with chile verde.

“This pose is excellent preparation for all those times when you have to stand on one foot with your arms above your head.”
Cartoon by David Sipress

Dreilinger has a soft spot, too, for farm girls like Louisan Mamer, who made her way to the University of Illinois after a girlhood of unrelenting labor on a farm with no electricity. During the Depression, Mamer went to work for the Rural Electrification Administration, trying to persuade farmers to get over their fears of fire or electrocution or the new, and sign up to join coöperatives that provided electricity. This was home ec at its most passionate and endearing. Mamer “saw a longer, healthier, fuller life for women,” Dreilinger writes. “No more headaches caused by squinting at books or mending under a sooty kerosene lamp. She saw laundry day freed of its shoulder-busting agony—lugging tubs of water from the pump up onto the coal stove, boiling dirt-encrusted clothes and linens, rubbing them by hand, wringing them through a hand-turned wringer, hanging them to dry, and ironing them with a seven-pound hunk of metal.” Women on farms worked, on average, between sixty-four and seventy-seven hours a week, and this, along with bearing many children, was killing them young. Mamer, a high-wattage energy generator herself, began touring small towns and farm areas with what became known as her electric circus, setting up ironing races between electric irons and the old-fashioned kind, and demonstrating bright lights, chicken brooders, refrigerators that chilled the ice-cream treats she whipped up for the audience, and other galvanic wonders. It was always a high point when she summoned up a couple of male pillars of the community, tied aprons on them, and set them to cooking in an electric kitchen. Dreilinger writes, “The funniest way possible to show the simplicity of electric ranges, she realized, was to show that even a man could use them.”

In the mid-nineteen-seventies, when I took sewing and cooking at my big public junior high in the San Fernando Valley, Title IX, the federal civil-rights statute barring sex discrimination in education, had just been adopted. That meant that boys could have been encouraged to take cooking or sewing, but I don’t recall any boys in those classes, or any girls who enrolled in woodshop or auto shop. Cooking class was taught by Mrs. Shaw, an elderly, muumuu-wearing transplant from somewhere in the South, and was dominated by a clique of boisterous girls who ate brown sugar by the handful straight out of the cannisters. Their leader was Shari, who towered over the rest of us.

“I see you girls cutting up back there,” Mrs. Shaw would say, and Shari would snigger, sugar crystals coating her lip-glossed mouth like salt on the rim of a margarita glass. We made English-muffin pizzas in a toaster oven and pigs in a blanket with cut-up Oscar Mayer wieners and Pillsbury Poppin’ Fresh biscuit dough. Every other savory recipe we learned seemed to start with opening a can of Campbell’s cream-of-mushroom soup. Mrs. Shaw often told us how much this fare would please our future husbands. “Don’t make me laugh,” Shari said, reasonably.

I can still remember the peasant blouse I produced in sewing class, with its square yolk and its pattern of wild strawberries. I was proud of it. I’d made it, and I could actually wear it: win-win! But my teacher maintained absurdly high standards. I got a D-plus in the class, which is just kind of sad—why bother with the plus? As I look back, these seem like missed opportunities. Both my parents cooked, and I picked that skill up eventually at home. But I never did learn any more sewing, and I wish I had. Like writing, it has the magical virtue of conjuring something that did not exist in the world before you put your hand to the task.

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