The oft-misunderstood field spans science and nutrition and promotes that cooking and cleaning is undervalued as a form of labor. Home economics has been a “back door for women to enter science” that turned into an “empire of jobs and influence,” Danielle Dreilinger writes in “The Secret History of Home Economics.”
Home economists can be credited with the invention of the federal poverty level, the consumer-protection movement, school lunch and the Rice Krispies Treat.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced working mothers, especially women of color, from the workplace, and a founding principle of home economics rings true now: Women’s time has value, and homekeeping is a laborious skill.
And personal finance was a big part of that: Women, despite not earning income, controlled the household purse. Home economists spearheaded important consumer finance protection programs and helped consumers find efficient and frugal ways to improve their homes. At the turn of the 20th century, it offered women a way to study science and nutrition and have a viable career path.
Louisan Mamer traveled around the country with her “Electric Circus” — which featured competitions using electric irons and stoves — to “educate and entertain rural families.” Bea Finkelstein was a military dietitian who created food for astronauts in the 1960s, showing that “home ec even helped launch people into space.”
Other home economists worked as consumer activists, protecting consumers from “dirty slaughterhouses and flour whitened with lead.” They worked in nutrition, creating pamphlets and guides about healthy eating targeted at low-income families.
While home economics has been viewed as the pursuit of white women, there were many leading Black home economists. Margaret Murray Washington, Booker T. Washington’s wife, served as Lady Principal at what would become Tuskegee University. She was a huge proponent of what would become home economics, believing that education and home improvement would reduce prejudice. Flemmie Kittrell was the first Black woman to earn a doctorate in nutrition in 1935, and there was a strong home-economics presence at Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
Today, home ec has faded from school curricula. Dreilinger argues for a future where home economics is mandatory in middle or high school so that both boys and girls learn housework, cooking and even light carpentry — which would teach essential skills and make domestic work more equitable, she writes.
Dreilinger spoke with MarketWatch about her book. The conversation has been condensed for clarity and length.
Q: It seemed like the heart of the book was really about women’s invisible labor and how we’ve undervalued skills like homemaking, cooking and cleaning throughout history. Home economics, in part, professionalized that and provided a career pathway in that work for women.
A: I do agree with that takeaway. I was thinking about the tension between home economics and household work being empowering versus being repressive. I finished the book in the early months of the pandemic, and that’s when that point really emerged about what problem it is: just how invisible all of that labor is, and how convenient it is that that labor is invisible, and how much the home economists sought to make it visible. I don’t know how I would have finished writing this book on time if I had children.
Q: How was personal finance an important part of home economics?
A: This has been in home economics from the very start because women were in charge of the household purse. It was considered up to them to create the budget. So much of the food prep and dietary part of home economics was focused on budget meals and how to eat well for less money. Home ec was a major force behind vegetarian cooking, and home economists talked about all the ways that you could substitute beans and other kinds of protein for meat because meat costs more.
I just pulled up a completely random issue of The Journal of Home Economics from 1921. The articles include economic food problems, the food economy kitchen, group buying of meat to make it cheaper for consumers. Money and what it meant for the consumer and individual households is just pervasive through home economics.
I asked Lorna Saboe-Wounded Head, a personal finance home economics expert at South Dakota State University, what the difference between having a home economist teach personal finance versus a business professor. And she said the business professor just doesn’t have an interconnected mindset. They’re not trained to see all the connections like how the international economy affects wheat prices, which affects our grocery bill, and what’s happening to your grocery bill, how does it affect what else you can buy, what else you’re spending and how you need to change your life.
Q: One of the big contradictions you mentioned in the book was home economics was meant to professionalize women’s work, but some of its founders were extremely racist and blocked out women of color and Black women specifically.
A: This is a place in which home ec really is part of larger U.S. society. Women of color, especially Black women, were absolutely central to home economics and [yet] excluded from it. And that is the story of U.S. history. It was pervasive. There’s a very active African-American presence in home ec today, but it’s still a majority white group for wives.
Q: What can we learn from home economists’ mission to show this invisible labor and make us think about all the work that goes into keeping a home?
A: Some takeaways from home economics: Household work is work. Another is to focus on what is really necessary. [Founder of home economics] Ellen Swallow Richards asked: What is necessary for a house to be a home? What matters to you? You can let go of the other stuff if you want to. If you feel fine living in a house with dusty floors, that’s fine.