Feminism and Home Ec: An Unlikely Partnership?

Home ec students learn to sew in 1961.

Home ec students learn to sew in 1961. Image via Elgin County Archives

July 31, 2014

If you are like me, you still remember home ec class from your high school days. You might recall learning basic cooking skills, how to hem a skirt, or how to manage a household budget. And you probably also recall that the majority, if not all, of your classmates were girls.

But at its start, the field of home economics was something quite different from what you remember. The roots of home ec can be traced back to Ellen Swallow Richards, the co-founder of Association of Collegiate Alumnae, the predecessor organization to AAUW.

Ellen Swallow Richards

Ellen Swallow Richards

Richards’ goal was a simple one. A trailblazing MIT chemist, she wanted to apply scientific knowledge to domestic work and create a new pathway for women into higher education. Early home economics courses incorporated a variety of scientific disciplines into the classroom and aimed to professionalize the work of women.

In addition, Richards and her fellow progressive-era feminists hoped that introducing more efficient practices within the home would liberate women from the drudgery of household work, freeing up their time and energy to focus on other pursuits.

In 1899 Richards organized the first of a series of meetings in Lake Placid, New York, to lay the groundwork for a new academic discipline. Several terms were offered to describe the work they were doing, including “oekology” and “euthenics,” but attendees eventually settled on “home economics.” The Lake Placid meetings were held until 1909, when the American Home Economics Association was established, and Richards became its first president.

It looks like Richards achieved her goal. According to Cornell University,

Training in home economics not only prepared women for motherhood and homemaking but also for a broad spectrum of careers in public and private education, business, social service, dietetics, journalism, and institutional management. As various professional fields legitimized their specific knowledge and talents, home economists carved a place for themselves outside the domestic sphere.

Today, home economics is referred to as “family and consumer science,” and it’s disappearing from schools. But recent articles call for a return to home economics education for both genders. Writers lament that the course has been dropped from many school curricula, pointing to the lack of basic essential skills, such as planning for and cooking nutritious meals and managing a household budget, among today’s youth. It will be interesting to see what the future holds and whether the home economics of Ellen Swallow Richards will be reinvented yet again.


Four empty plates and forks

Summertime, and the Kids Go Hungry: The School Lunch Problem

Ellen Swallow Richards established the country’s first school lunch program.

A vintage picture of a Betty Crocker cookbook

Have This with Your Cupcake: Betty Crocker Was a Feminist!

The real Betty Crocker was a home economist and feminist — and an AAUW member!


Our History

A timeline of AAUW history discusses the contributions of Ellen Swallow Richards.

By:   |   July 31, 2014


  1. Pauline Barrett says:

    I majored in Home Economics at Oregon State University; at the time of my matriculation, it was the best choice for me. Food prep is applied organic chemistry, clothing construction is physics…. and the comparisons with other science-related arenas.

    These days HS home economics, in most schools, has been removed. This is resulting in many young women 9and men) not knowing their way around a kitchen. Or what to look for in clothing.

    Home Economics focused on maintaining healthy families which is the core of American life (also globally affiliated).

    I knew the story of Ellen Swallow Richards and her being one of the founder of what we know as AAUW. Finally she is getting some recognition for her association with her peers.

  2. kay kessel says:

    I also was a Home Economics graduate in 1961. I taught for a year and a half in a middle school and I had all the students. Then I left for the Peace Corps in 63-65. When I came back Home Economics became an elective because of Sputnik and parents wanted more Math, Science and Languages. Science was my minor and I became part of a research project to help educate developmentally disabled youth 16-21 and teach them vocational skills. Our school, the Cooperative School Rehabilitation Center, became nationally known for we helped launch these young men and women into the community, helped them find jobs and I pioneered a family life education curriculum for them because if they were to be mainstreamed in the community, they needed education about home living and sexuality.

    This discipline is even more important today. I became an Assistant Principal in the Minneapolis Public Schools and helped initiate school clinics in the schools, required programs for teen mothers and child care for their children. My best and brightest Professor was Dr. Hamilton McCubbins, in the Family Social Science Department.

    My Home Economics Professors in the 50′s and 60′s were very demanding. Our college, scholastically, was equal to any other discipline at the University of Minnesota.
    Kay Kessel

  3. Michele Guttenberger says:

    During this same era an inventor in New Jersey – Thomas Edison advertised to “the lady of the home” convincing her to convert the lighting in her home from dirty and dangerous gas/ oil lamps to clean safe electric lighting . The New York Metro area households were the first to embrace modern day electrical gadgetry and technology. Engineers and inventors like Edison accommodated the specifications of their industry’s shareholders called homemakers. It is when progress touches the home a society can become progressive. These ideal 20th Century innovations and notions were campaigned and empowered by women which helped turn the wheels of modern household living. Although their names are not listed in history books their impact and progressive influence in modern day living were immeasurable.

Join the Conversation

You must be logged in to post a comment.