Stir It Up
Home Economics in American Culture
Megan J. Elias
2008 | 240 pages | Cloth $45.00 | Paper $22.50
American History | Cultural Studies | Women's Studies/Gender Studies | Education
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Table of Contents
1. A Department of One's Own
2. At Home in the World
3. Future Homemakers of America
4. Burn Your Braziers
Epilogue: Flip this Housewife
Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]
In 2003, a high school student in Glens Falls, New York told a reporter that he would take a home economics class only if he were "real, real hungry." A little more than sixty years earlier, in the popular movie The Best Years of Our Lives, screenwriter Robert Sherwood offered a different perspective on the subject. In this 1946 movie, an army sergeant returns home from World War II to find that his family has learned to manage without him. His daughter, Peggy, remarks that a class in domestic science at the local college has enabled her to take over the housekeeping after the family's servant left. In both 2003 and 1946, learning home economics was presented as an emergency measure, but in Sherwood's screenplay the topic served a heroic purpose while in the case of the Glens Falls high school student, it is a joke.
To better understand the meaning of home economics in American culture and society today, it is important to examine its origins and history over the past century. Contrary to the popular myth that "home ec" was born in the conformist culture of the 1950s, home economics began as an organized social movement at the end of the nineteenth century. It encompassed several interconnected and sometimes contradictory agendas, but can loosely be described as a movement to professionalize domestic work and domestic space. Leaders of the home economics movement advocated studying the home, using both physical and social sciences. Based on this research, they would discover and propagate the best methods for performing work. In addition and no less significantly, they hoped to create new professions that were connected to the elements of home life and imagined that women in particular would be drawn to these professions, creating new opportunities outside the home. Though the earliest home economists saw theirs as a rigorously scientific pursuit to put work in the home on par with other forms of paid labor, because women had traditionally performed this work, the proposed reforms would affect women's status in society and thus had much wider implications.
Because of the work of this first generation of home economists, by the end of World War II, Americans had accepted the idea that domestic space could be a site for social change, even for heroism on a small scale. Over the next fifty years that possibility evaporated as American popular culture, most intensely in the 1950s, emphasized the domestic sphere as a place where social changes did not occur—a space safe from all the upheavals of modern life. The only changes that Americans were encouraged to adopt at home during the 1950s were technological advances. A new toaster was always welcome, but new gender roles were not.
Simultaneous to the development of home economics as a field of academic inquiry, corporate producers of household goods—everything from macaroni to scouring powder—were establishing themselves as authorities on all things domestic. While female academics of the 1930s attempted to convince college girls that each woman was principal investigator in her own laboratory, Campbell's and Crisco and the makers of linoleum were tempting them to cede all responsibility for household science to corporations. Starting in the 1920s, corporations hired home economists to publicize their products, redirecting the legitimacy that these academics had created for themselves to increase profits. On the one hand this cooptation created more professional opportunities for women, particularly in business, but on the other hand it tossed aside the field's original message of women's liberation through control of the domestic environment. And in the final analysis, corporations won out over academics, commodifying lifestyles so that home economics in popular culture became product-focused rather than an intellectual movement.
This book is more than simply an institutional history; it places home economics in cultural context. It begins with an overview of the rise of home economics in higher education and then focuses on two shifts in American thinking about the subject. The first shift began in the 1920s and occurred gradually as corporations took over the domestic expertise that home economists had carved out for themselves. The second shift occurred in the 1950s when home economics largely lost the cultural authority that leaders in the field had struggled to attain. During this era, home economics became associated with dead-end high school classes for girls. Both of these shifts involved changes in popular thinking about women's roles and about domestic life.
Although home economics no longer exists as a unified movement, many of the issues its pioneers raised remain contested in the twenty-first century. Certainly the central issue of how to establish equality of authority between consumers and producers of goods remains with us, particularly in relation to food. A 2006 study found, for example, that although a majority of Americans say that they would prefer to eat healthful food, they continue to buy the larger and more fatty meals offered to them by fast-food restaurants. In this case some of the messages of home economics have been absorbed into the culture, but others, such as the power of the consumer to change the market, have not.
The problem of how to value our domestic lives in relation to work for money outside the home also continues to vex American women and, increasingly, American men as well. In a nation constantly bombarded with exhortations to put "family values" above all else, there is a simultaneous push to succeed financially at all costs. These two messages are often experienced as incompatible. Indeed, at the end of the twentieth century even male government officials frequently offered the (albeit suspect) excuse that they wanted "to spend more time with family" as a reason for leaving office. In the first six years of the twenty-first century, a new focus on motherhood has produced countless web logs, guidebooks, and manifestos about what it means to care for children in modern America. And, as marriage and adoption laws are challenged and expanded, Americans experience deep conflicts over what the term "family" can mean.
At the same time, persistent and growing fascination with the domestic environment as a site for change and personal transformation creates seemingly endless markets for television shows about homes, domestic-themed magazines, and domestic product lines. While Americans seem for the most part uninterested in the kind of education for and about home life that home economists of the first half of the twentieth century proposed, they exhibit a voracious appetite for the commodity of home, purveyed to them by producers of foodstuffs, house wares, television shows, magazines, and books. Home economics helped to create this market, and for this it deserves our attention no less than for the fact that it simultaneously offered strategies to resist this same powerful trend.
Home Economics Before the Home Economics Movement
Since the late eighteenth century, American women have had access to domestic manuals and have thus been able to rely on strangers for advice on how to manage their own homes. Early domestic manuals focused particularly on how to prepare foods and how to care for sick family members but also offered advice on laundry and house cleaning. The great majority of women, however, would have learned household duties and skills not from books but from female relatives, usually mothers. This was true both because most Americans could not afford to own books and because until the end of the nineteenth century, American culture did not favor experts or value expertise.
Until the era of professional specialization that began after the Civil War, most Americans trusted experience over analysis, particularly in matters relating to the household and to agricultural production. This began to change after 1862, when the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act established universities in each state in which rural men could be trained in the newest methods of farming or engineering. As the Land-Grant universities grew, some also began offering courses for rural women, bringing to them new ideas about how to perform housework. Home economics—the rationalization and professionalization of housework—grew out of these early courses.
Before the advent of home economics, however, the American home passed through several important changes. Some of these were material changes, and others were changes in social and cultural attitudes toward homes and women. Beginning in the 1820s, mass production of textiles removed spinning and weaving from most homes, and the emerging market in affordable consumer goods gave women new roles as shoppers and consumers for their families. Simultaneously, new national ideals began to focus on woman's role as first teacher of children. Particularly in the northeast there emerged a call for women to receive a basic education so that their sons might have better role models as they grew into full and virtuous citizenship. Even as women were gaining access to basic education in topics traditionally considered male, they were also encouraged to think of their lives within the home as sacred and the work they performed there as vital to society. This ideal, generally known as the cult of domesticity, identified woman's highest calling as thoughtful wife and mother. As material production retreated more and more rapidly from the home, women acquired new roles as spiritual guardians and also as consumers of mass-produced goods. By necessity these ideals, propagated in popular fiction and women's magazines, applied only to the middle and upper middle class, but such women were supposed to serve as models for all women.
An 1850 story in the popular magazine Godey's Lady's Book updated the tale of the country mouse and the city mouse, presenting a comparison between two female cousins that reduced morality to shopping habits. The two cousins of "Furnishing; or Two Ways of Commencing Life" were both engaged to be married and were making all of the major purchases for their new households. Anne lived in a rural town and had significantly less money to spend than her cousin, Adelaide, who was wealthy and urban. Both had been well educated, but only Anne prayed and attended church regularly. On shopping trips in the city where Anne was visiting her cousin, Adelaide spent extravagantly while Anne delighted in thrift and modesty, valuing utility above all else in her "furnishings." Although the author did not present the story as an analysis of the emerging market economy, the fact that the young women had so many choices and that they could shop for them reflected a new era of commodified domesticity. Within three years, Adelaide's husband went bankrupt, largely through his wife's improvident spending, and left for California without her. Anne's family meanwhile flourished, although in a respectably modest way. The author's reduction of two women to their decorating styles allowed the story to serve two purposes simultaneously as education and entertainment. Anne's piety, though not overtly emphasized in the story, hinted at the sanctification of the modest housewife that was to find full expression in Catharine Beecher's The American Woman's Home.
Catharine Beecher was the most famous proponent of the ideal of woman as household saint and was also the first popular writer to suggest that the home should be run on business principles. Her 1869 The American Woman's Home, which she wrote with her famous sister, the novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe, offered readers not just household hints but a whole new philosophy of home management based in her own devout Christianity. Beecher defined home, family, and woman together, arguing, "The family state then, is the aptest earthly illustration of the heavenly kingdom, and in it woman is its chief minister. Her great mission is self-denial, in training its members to self-sacrificing labors for the ignorant and weak." Beecher argued that it was unreasonable to expect women to fulfill this sacred mission without the proper training, which she offered in her book. She also claimed that once young women acquired this training and came to think of themselves as professionals within the home, the status of housekeeper would no longer be ranked among menial occupations but would be "as much desired and respected as are the most honored professions of men." It was quite clear that even when this glorious day arrived, however, Beecher did not expect men to desire that desirable position. In Beecher's universe, women and men existed in separate but equally valued and interdependent spheres.
Beecher's book is important as the first attempt to claim professional status for homemaking. She also, like the home economists who would form their movement later in the century, presented herself to the reading public as an authority on household matters. Unlike the home economists to come, however, she located her authority in experience, not study, having helped to raise her twelve younger siblings. This was a common strategy for writers about domestic issues in this time period, as evidenced by a story that appeared in Arthur's Home Magazine the year after the Beecher sisters published their guidebook. In this story, an elderly aunt advised a niece on the care of her first child, who suffered from colic. The niece, who claimed spiritedly that she would not take criticism from any other source, made an exception for her aunt because the woman had helped to raise her. Taking her aunt's advice, she cured her baby.
The story offered readers potentially useful information but presented it as ancient wisdom rather than as something new. The magazine editors could assume an audience of young women who, in this era of western migration, urbanization, and privatization of family life, would not have as much casual access to the knowledge of older women as they would have had in early periods. The aunt in the story stands in for the absent aunts and mothers of the readers, bringing information that they can trust because it is delivered by a female authority who gained her expertise through experience.
Beecher's approach to domestic knowledge was novel and apparently very popular. The American Woman's Home became one of the best sellers of the century. The book's popularity stemmed from the fact that Beecher incorporated old and new ideas about women's ideal role in society, thereby providing her readers with reassurance as well as rethinking. On the one hand she celebrated traditional gender divisions, conflating woman with home and man with the world, but on the other she argued that women should be understood to be professionals, although always within their proper sphere. The book covered many of the topics that home economics would later embrace, such as sanitation, interior design, and health, but also included a focus on religion that would be absent from the later movement.
Building on the great success of Beecher's guidebook as well as on the growth of the middle class, a new market in domestic manuals and household science courses emerged in the 1870s. Women such as Mary Lincoln and Maria Parloa opened cooking schools and prepared advice manuals that could help middle-class women manage homes that were larger and in many ways different from those that their mothers had presided over. More stuff and more space, more display and less production marked the modern home as different from that of earlier generations. Middle-class women also spent less time actually doing and more time managing others in the performance of household tasks. Manuals that instructed them in proper methods as well as schools to train staff promised to ease the transition from one kind of home to another.
Home economics emerged at the end of the nineteenth century in response to and because of many changes occurring both at the level of material culture and practices and in the more abstract realm of gender ideology and thinking about the home. A new social discourse was emerging, known loosely as progressivism, which privileged scientific explanations and demanded social reform. As the industrial revolution took hold of the American economy and as mass production, alienation, and urbanization appeared to be unstoppable trends, Americans looked for solutions that could soften the effects of change without slowing down the engines of progress.
In 1893 some of the trends toward home economics education came together at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. There, as part of Massachusetts's contribution to the fair, Ellen Richards and Mary Hinman Abel offered visitors a model kitchen designed along the same lines as the New England Kitchen, a kitchen and restaurant they had established earlier in Boston. Richards was a chemist and Abel was a self-taught nutritionist. Set up in a freestanding cottage, the kitchen was designed to demonstrate "the application of science to the preparation of food." The walls of the kitchen were decorated with "mottoes" related to the home economics philosophy. Among these inspirational sayings, which many visitors wrote down, were anonymous witticisms such as, "There are three companions with whom you should keep on good terms—your wife, your stomach, and your conscience," and Oliver Wendell Holmes's culinary aesthetic: "Plain food is quite good enough for me."
Workers in the kitchen sold food to fair-goers, partly as a way to recoup costs of the exhibit but mostly in order to introduce a wider American public to the kind of wholesome low-cost meals that Richards and Abel believed would improve national health and wealth. There is no way of knowing whether they were successful in making the distinction between lunch and lesson real to their audience, but visitors were particularly eager to take home the pamphlets prepared for them. In these pamphlets, published as a set subtitled "Plain Words about Food," Richards, Abel, and seven other writers presented work that was eclectic in its approach, ranging from Richards's own simple advice on "Good Food for Little Money" to physiologist R. H. Chittenden's discussion of "the Digestibility of Proteid Foods," to Abel's "King Palate," a fable about how King Palate's kingdom, plagued with imps such as dyspepsia, was rescued by a knight known as Knowledge. The ideals that Abel and Richards showcased in Chicago were the founding principles of a national movement six years later.
The Movement Begins
The first organized meeting of home economists occurred in Lake Placid, New York, in 1899, where the nine women and one man in attendance outlined a plan to bring together developing trends in education that were related but not yet overtly connected. The group called itself the Lake Placid Conference on Home Economics and met annually until 1909 when it became the American Home Economics Association (AHEA). An invitation went out in 1899 to gather "those most interested in home science, or household economics" in the belief that "the time was ripe for some united action" on their part.
What brought the group together in 1899 was a perceived need to win public recognition for this diverse work as both interrelated and important. The two main topics presented for consideration at the first meeting were the development of professional training for leadership in the movement and the question of how home economics could assist the average woman at her housework. As defined at the gathering, leadership meant gaining access to academic communities on the same footing as other fields. Thus the leaders would have to be people with university training in relevant subjects. The question of how to help the nonacademic woman could potentially be solved, at least for those with the financial means and the interest, by the creation of college and university courses in home economics.
Describing the general tenor of the first conference, one of the participants might also have been describing the group's vision for the field itself: "It was evident that those in attendance were women capable of seeing something outside their own routine work and of recognizing the importance of work done by others." In attempting to change not only processes but also attitudes toward processes, home economists wanted to free women from the stigma of women's work. Partly this would be accomplished by rationalizing women's labor—making less of it in the process—and partly by assigning it greater value. This created a dynamic paradox that the movement was never fully able to reconcile: if women's work was innately valuable, why attempt to replace so much of it with new technologies or for-hire services? Like the visionaries who historian Dolores Hayden terms "domestic feminists," home economists located the source of female oppression in their socioeconomic role—their labor.
However, although many among the first generation of home economists were suffragists, they did not explicitly argue that freedom from toil was freedom from male oppression. Although they talked about women as victims, they never talked about men as involved in the forces that oppressed women. Liberation was from circumstances. Indeed, home economists argued that the forces of modern industrial capitalism—which, if not mastered, had the potential to oppress women—also oppressed men. Everyone lost out if the home remained premodern.
From its earliest stages, then, the movement included both activist and analytic agendas. Some looked forward to the day when the elements of home life—food, clothing, family relationships—would be recognized as fit topics for academic research. They envisioned this research as the exclusive realm of university-trained women who would be socially accepted as professionals. Others dreamed of a nation of perfectly efficient households run by women trained to the task and completely fulfilled in their work. The two ideas were not mutually exclusive, but emphasis on the second could tend to undermine the first. Although the first vision was achieved to a great degree, through the establishment of such fields as nutrition, interior design, and child development, it is the second that captured the popular attention and which, because it failed, gave the movement its reputation for a certain reactionary irrelevance.
Home Economists Among the Progressives
Librarian and reformer Melvil Dewey, founder of the Dewey Decimal System, opened the second Lake Placid Conference on Home Economics, in 1900, with the encouraging statement, "Every great movement has been started by a few earnest people; a score of the right ones will do more effective work than a great mass meeting." Their numbers might still be small, he told his friends, but their impact would not be. Dewey asserted the group's identity here as an elite one with responsibilities to the masses, a shared idea among the various reform groups that fell under the umbrella of the progressive movement at the turn of the twentieth century.
The ascendance of science in the academy and the reorganization of higher education were integral to the emergence of all of the progressive reform groups, home economics among them. In the forty years after the Civil War, American higher education experienced profound changes. The first colleges in America had provided general preparation for the ministry and the few other existing professions. Graduates were supposed to emerge with a deeper appreciation for culture, which was largely defined as the products of European thought. Beginning during the Civil War, with the establishment of the Land-Grant colleges, and continuing through the end of the century, new institutions were founded on a new model, pioneered in Germany. The German model stressed research and science over classics and religion. This shift included the introduction of new topics to higher education, such as psychology, economics, and engineering, which dealt directly with issues of the contemporary world. Graduates of these universities were supposed to become problem-solvers and innovators.
The new model rose alongside and in response to the emergence of the industrial economy. Changes in technology and the increasing diversification of world markets seemed to demand new kinds of education. Indeed, many of the new universities received large grants from men who had made their fortunes in industry and who were deeply invested in the production of a managerial class trained to their own specifications. Although the main goal of the new universities was to strengthen the economy and thus the nation, however, some graduates believed they had a responsibility to apply the new methods to fight the less pleasant results of modernization. Where generations before had accepted that poverty and inequality existed as part of God's mysterious plan, these young people were trained to look at the world in terms of hypotheses and proofs. They acquired the environmentalist perspective that looked to the social environment for both explanations and solutions. Furthermore, the universities themselves were steadily expanding to include new fields of study, many of which were concerned directly with human experience. As a group of home economists noted in 1903, there was a "general elasticity in educational curricula at the present time," which might allow their subject to find a home in higher education.
Simultaneous to the rise of the research university, women's educational opportunities expanded. Some of the new universities, notably the Land-Grant institutions, admitted female students, first to Normal (teacher training) schools, but soon also to liberal arts and science curricula. Female students at research universities, as well as those attending the growing numbers of women's colleges, often experienced a sense of loss on graduation when they found that despite their education, most professions remained closed to their gender. Among the frustrated, a small group turned their talents to the solution of social problems, in the process creating new professions for themselves, notably in social work and the many subfields of home economics.
Ellen Richards, founding figure of home economics, embodied many of the changes of the era. An 1870 graduate of Vassar College, she found no way to apply her interest in chemistry until she was admitted to the recently opened Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Because MIT was so young and the kind of education it offered so new, it had not had time to establish a tradition of exclusion before Richards applied. The first woman to graduate from MIT, she focused her scientific attention on the urban environment, studying water and air qualities in Boston. Richards envisioned home economics as "euthenics," the sister science of eugenics. Where eugenics bred the perfect individual, euthenics would supply the ideal environment. This particular vision for the movement did not catch on, but the central idea that social problems, including the drudgery of the housewife, could be solved through scientific research did endure.
Like other reformers of the time, home economists both relied on human ingenuity to solve social problems and focused early on the scientific management of wasted energy. Frederick Taylor, the most famous scientific manager, studied workers to help employers get the highest levels of productivity in the least amount of time. Taylor and other scientific managers like Frank and Lillian Gilbreth introduced the idea that a standard of efficiency was achievable in any workplace through the implementation of systems. Taylor's most influential idea was that there was "one best way" to perform any task.
Home economists came to this idea contemporaneously, claiming that wasted labor kept American women shackled to the past while they might move briskly into the future if their labor were systematized. Indeed, Lillian Gilbreth systematized her own home life, a story made famous in the memoir Cheaper by the Dozen, written by two of the Gilbreth's twelve children. Following "best" business practices, the Gilbreths instituted family meetings, work-flow charts, and bidding for preferred household tasks. For their part, home economists conducted motion studies of domestic labor, encouraged the use of pedometers by housekeepers (to count, and thus eventually save steps), and advocated redesign of kitchens to reflect the physical individuality of the women who used them. Isabel Bevier of the University of Illinois even wore a pedometer herself at work, both indicating an obsession with efficiency and reflecting the movement's campaign to make women think of home as work space.
Because the home had not been engineered as the workplace had, home economists argued, it was rife with potential dangers, including malnutrition, poison, disease, exhaustion, poverty, waste, family conflict, and boredom. As antidotes, they offered nutrition, bacteriology, interior design, scientific management, household economics, conservation, and developmental psychology. Home economists repeatedly identified "drudgery" as their nemesis, arguing that women's work in the home could be made both easier and more interesting and that society at large would then recognize its value.
The movement was fully committed to the new managerial society and to the applications of scientific principles in place of folkways in most situations. But home economists also held onto the past, or an idealized vision of it, in that they advocated a home-centered world, in which the lures of the market were never stronger than the ties of family and place. In fact, they saw these connections as potentially strengthened through the application of managerial and scientific principles to the domestic sphere. Theirs was a nostalgic modernism, one that sought to correct the weaknesses in traditional life so that its strengths—moderation, community focus, an organic design aesthetic—could be made all the stronger. Despite the difference in intended audience, however, there was much overlap between the settlement house movement, social work, and home economics, particularly at the University of Chicago, where Sophonisba Breckenridge was a member of the Department of Household Administration in 1920 when she helped to create the university's Graduate School of Social Service Administration.
Although it has been a common perception that women interested in the sciences were sidelined into home economics, personal correspondence of these leaders reveals women who were enthusiastic about the field that they were themselves creating, rather than frustrated at being pushed into a field created by men to neutralize women's presence in the academy. In December 1917, Sarah Arnold, dean of Simmons College and founder of the home economics department there, wrote to Martha Van Rensselaer, cochair of home economics at Cornell, "I have had no chance to tell you how much I have appreciated being with you and Miss Rose in this big and earnest piece of work. It certainly calls for our utmost devotion and our utmost wisdom. I am thankful to be marching with you." In 1917, Arnold would have been referring specifically to home economists' work in food conservation during the First World War, but it is easy to hear her praise for the larger mission that the three women, pioneers in their field shared.
Heroines for a New Age?
The disconnect that often occurred between how home economists viewed their movement and how the larger society viewed them says much about their effectiveness in changing attitudes toward work in the home. During its first twenty years, the movement and its leaders were generally portrayed positively in the popular press. New courses in colleges and high schools were newsworthy events, and although there was often a tone of surprise in these articles, they generally did not offer criticism. A writer in the Fort Wayne, Indiana Morning Journal Gazette noted in 1901, that although "many women in all ages have shown ingenuity in preparing food. . . . Mrs. Ellen Richards, who has charge of the laboratory of sanitary science at [MIT] has attacked the food problem on the more practical grounds. . . . A chemist rather than a caterer, she has sought the broad scientific principles upon which the economic sustenance of the human race depends." And in this work, she had acquired not just cooking techniques, but "the authority that always results sooner or later from exact knowledge." Differentiating Richards from the generation of women before her, the author presented her as a heroine for a new age.
Another article from that same year, however, exhibited ambivalence toward a movement that advocated raising the status of domestic work. "Learning Home Arts" described the recent opening of the Department of Domestic Arts at Teachers College, Columbia. Admitting that the program came into being because of a real and increasing demand for "dieticians, visiting nurses, managers of institutions," the author nonetheless focused on the easily mocked material of cooks in academia. In a nutrition class described in the article, students prepared a meal as their final exam. Professors assessed their work by eating it. Those who failed, the author explained, "must repeat the course as the digestion of the Faculty does not permit of deficiency examinations."
In early responses to home economics, writers seem to have been more interested in the shorter-lived branch of the movement that focused on training domestic workers and in educating the urban poor. Thus an article from 1907 described a school for housekeeping set up in "a tenement of the better class" by the League for Home Economics to train women who may have started working for wages as early as age fourteen and had therefore not experienced the traditional middle-class girl's apprenticeship in housework at her mother's knee. The school was praised as a way of helping the working poor make the most of their scarce resources by teaching wives how to budget and manage a household. This branch of the movement, closely related to settlement houses and social work, did not represent the most influential version of the movement, that which attempted to revalue domestic work and issues as public and professional.
Even writers who admired the work of the movement tended to support the idea that its sole aim was to create perfect wives. In some cases, home economists, who, especially in the early years, did not share one standard training or philosophy, helped spread this message. In 1903, when the School of Domestic Arts and Sciences opened in Chicago, "a young man peeped into the school" and asked, "do you furnish wives here?" Mrs. Lynden Evans, who was chair of the committee that ran the school, as well as editor of the Chicago Times "Domestic Science" column, reported, "We told him no," but also went on to describe the school as one that would "furnish young women with the necessaries for becoming good wives."
Vehement criticism of the movement in the popular press was rare but tended to come from a feminist perspective. Martha Bruere, an active suffragist, Vassar graduate, and, ironically, writer of books on household efficiency, attacked the movement as being stuck in a prefeminist past. "Of all the inconsequent recommendation for the general instruction of girls, none is so recklessly handed about as the advice to teach them domestic science," she complained in 1916. Arguing that it had once been a proper part of women's education, Bruere explained, "as women's opportunities broadened it was dropt." There was, she felt, no need for individual women to learn housekeeping when public services and private enterprise were increasingly able to fill in for traditionally domestic chores such as butter churning and bread making.
Marion Talbot of the University of Chicago had anticipated and addressed this criticism much earlier. In 1902, in a paper prepared for the third Lake Placid Conference, Talbot agreed that simply to remake the university so that it trained women students for domestic life would "be as disappointing as it would be futile. . . . There are probably at least as many women who sigh for a knowledge of the classics or of philosophy as who think their college course should have taught them how to make bread or deal with incompetent servants." She continued by articulating what she believed to be the larger social value of the movement: "Home economics must always be regarded in the light of its relation to the general social system, that men and women are alike concerned in understanding the processes, activities, obligations and opportunities which make the home and the family effective parts of the social fabric."
Commenting on Talbot's words, home economics educator Alice Peloubet Norton returned the discussion to the idea that American women were being left behind by modernity. She insisted that home economics was "the best subject yet found to teach power over things. It is humiliating to be conquered by things." Women needed to take the reins and use modern technology and knowledge to bolster rather than undercut traditional practices and virtues.
A writer in the Chicago Tribune, one of the few to attack home economics on the grounds of class bias, seemed to respond directly to Talbot and Norton's heroic description of their field, suggesting that the systems that home economists proposed for running households were themselves luxuries to many Americans. Noting that the poor lived according to budgets because they had no other choice, the writer further argued that those who did not have to budget never would and in fact "do not care to free themselves from the 'dominance of things' . . . and they care nothing for proteids or carbohydrates." The average American did not feel humiliated to be "conquered" by things; rather she or he eagerly courted the sensation. In the battle between "poor weak human nature" and "starry-eyed science," the writer sardonically concluded, the former would always, "outside of a few alumnae in Boston," win.
"So-called Practical Studies"
The strongest criticism of the movement came not in the popular press, however, but from other academics, particularly those in private women's colleges who felt that home economics threatened progress that had been hard to win.
Female faculty at women's colleges resisted incorporating home economics into curricula because the field seemed to advocate a pre-feminist version of womanhood. Faculty and administrators at women's colleges like Smith and Mount Holyoke wanted their graduates to live a life of the mind as men's intellectual equals, rather than their well-trained helpmeets. The first course catalog for Mount Holyoke, for example, made a clear distinction between skills-focused education for domestic life and liberal education. "It is no part of the design of this seminary to teach young ladies domestic work." Although the catalog acknowledged the importance of housekeeping, it insisted that the private home was the proper venue for education in such topics.
M. Carey Thomas, president of Bryn Mawr, was openly disgusted with the idea of including home economics in the curriculum at women's colleges. Declaring in 1908 "nothing more disastrous for women, or for men, can be conceived than this plan for the specialized education of women as a sex," she roundly rejected a "college curriculum of women with hygiene and sanitary drainage and domestic science and child-study and all the rest of the so-called practical studies." Thomas argued that even if most female students married, they still needed the broadest possible education in order to raise intelligent sons.
In 1905, the Association of Collegiate Alumnae, which would later become the American Association of University Women, declared home economics an inappropriate topic for women's college education. Founded in 1881, the ACA was committed to making higher education for women acceptable to society at large and to forcing society to recognize that women were intellectually equal to men. Home economics did not seem to them to fit in with this project. In a statement issued in 1906, members of the group argued that although courses in "practical housekeeping" could be very useful to women after they left college, "as an applied science it has not the same educational value as courses that give liberal training." Even if most women were going to end up managing their own homes rather than pursuing careers, "our future homemakers should have the broadest liberal training upon which to base technical knowledge." In other words, the members of the ACA saw home economics as a skill set, not a field of study, and believed that these skills could be picked up quickly outside of college. What a woman learned in the liberal arts curriculum would enrich her intellectually, which was much more important in the long run than whether she could, as the old song asks, "bake a cherry pie."
Pointing out that "the very women who are themselves making a successful profession of teaching [home economics]" did so "thanks mainly to their having received the sort of education they now deprecate for women in general," Mary Leal Harkness, professor of Latin at Sophie Newcomb College, warned against the spread of home economics courses. "The real result of their educational theories, if they can ever get them put into general practice," she predicted of home economists, "will be to bring both schools and women to even a lower level of the mediocrity which grows out of the effort to do too many things, and of elevating things above thoughts." In an interesting reversal of Alice Peloubet Norton's claim that home economics education would free women from the tyranny of things, Harkness saw the field as mired in the material.
All of these tensions—the public's ambivalence toward women's roles in society, feminists' distrust of a movement that emphasized the domestic sphere, fellow academic's discomfort with the field as a profession, and home economists' own dual progressive and traditional visions of women—buffeted the movement throughout its history. Indeed, in the 1950s, when Flora Rose, dean of the College of Home Economics at Cornell, looked back at the early days of the movement she had helped to start, she recalled the establishment of the field in terms that connected that very materiality to modern feminism. Remembering how she and her partner, Martha Van Rensselaer, acquired control of their department's budget, she said, "It made a great difference in our work and everything we did. For the reason that Virginia Woolf said in a title of a book, 'We now had a room of our own and our income.' . . . It would be a wonderful thing if every woman had her own income." Rose and her peers created departments "of one's own," choosing material that was at once rigorously academic