Home Economics classes are a common target for advocates of women’s advancement, but a better strategy than attacking the classes would be to embrace their origin.
By Alexandra Lundgren
In 1873 Ellen Swallow Richards became the first woman to graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She received her Bachelor of Science degree specializing in chemistry and spent the majority of her time teaching. She originally wanted to acquire her doctorate degree, but the school would not allow their first PhD of Science to be awarded to a woman.
In 1876 Richards raised funds to build the MIT Women’s Laboratory, a facility that catered to women with a range of interests and time available for such studies. While at the Women’s Laboratory she became interested in applying the principles she was teaching to domestic topics. These topics included good nutrition, pure foods, proper clothing, physical fitness, sanitation, and other methods that would allow women to be efficient homemakers and still pursue higher education. At the same time she also set up programs in Boston public schools to prepare women for a higher education in sciences. Richards later published The Chemistry of Cooking and Cleaning: A Manual for Housekeepers (1882). She opened a kitchen at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair to give classes on nutrition and food preparation and in 1908 she became the founder and first president of the American Home Economics Association. Now known as the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences (FACS), this program is meant to educate young people on the ins and outs of everyday life. Ellen Swallow Richards is recognized as the founder of Home Economics, a renowned chemist, and a pioneer who paved the way for women in science fields.
In 1950 only about 10% of adults were considered obese, now more than 35% are. Part of this is due to not knowing how to prepare healthy meals.
I tell this story because it would surprise many people where Home Economics came from. It isn’t just classes that are meant to teach women how to be good housewives. It was originally meant to make women efficient in the home so they could pursue an education, and many people don’t realize that. They see Home Ec as an old-age idea, focused around a time when all women did was make babies, cook food, and sew. Surprisingly enough the age that that idea supposedly comes from–the early 20th Century–was a huge step forward for women in the workplace. Through both world wars, especially WWII, many women joined up on the home front, working in factories, advertising war bonds, healing the wounded, even volunteering with community service. Since then they really haven’t stopped working, and while having a full time job women can still run a clean, functioning household . . . or at least they used to.
The classes are good for women as well as men, and they help the young person to be more productive in their everyday life. Yet true home economics classes are seen as a step back.
In recent years I’ve seen a huge decrease in home economics classes that are beneficial. The few I attended in high school were rather unhelpful, focusing more on social interactions and filling out resumes than balancing a budget, handling credit, or how to hem a pair of pants. And while everyone certainly needs to know how to fill out a resume, I’m sure schools could focus on other things as well. One of the number one topics that needs to be targeted is obesity. In 1950 only about 10% of adults were considered obese, now more than 35% are. Part of this is due to not knowing how to prepare healthy meals. Take-out and restaurant servings have more than doubled, and frozen and pre-packaged food is readily available at any time. While schools do teach students how to read nutrition labels in FACS classes, they don’t teach them how to apply the information. In my health and nutrition class I was taught how to make banana pudding sundaes, add meat to Ramen noodles and make cold Ramen noodle salad. Doesn’t sounds very healthy does it? In the 1900s Home Ec classes taught students how to make home baked goods and prep full course dinners–real-life skills that can be applied. Another skill that I believe most of the young population lacks is basic sewing techniques. I can almost guarantee that the average teenager couldn’t tell you how to repair the tear in their favorite shirt or fix a loose button. But if you went back in time young girls would wear the dresses they had made to the formal, sporting fluffy crinolines, and flowing chiffons.
So why, then, did schools banish these amazing classes? The classes are good for women as well as men, and they help the young person to be more productive in their everyday life. Yet true home economics classes are seen as a step back. Feminists go crazy when they hear about these “oppressive” classes, when, really, they were created to fight oppression in the first place.
Photo: GN08954 Home Economics students, 1945 by Community History SA on Flickr