Feminism and Home Ec: An Unlikely Partnership?
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.
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.
Ellen Swallow Richards established the country’s first school lunch program.
The real Betty Crocker was a home economist and feminist — and an AAUW member!
A timeline of AAUW history discusses the contributions of Ellen Swallow Richards.