Book Report: Surprise! The History of Home Ec is Feminist

According to author, Danielle Dreilinger, the study of Home Economics started in the 1800s as an acceptable way for young women to pursue the sciences? Yup. Hard sciences too, like chemistry and biology and engineering.

So, it started out as feminist, but over the next 150 years devolved—at least in public perception–into a rather sexist (or worse, irrelevant) course of study. Also surprising was that some of the most notable Home Economics pioneers were women of color who taught at historically black colleges like Howard and Tuskegee. Among them was Booker T. Washington’s third wife, Margaret Murray Washington.

A few of the contributions you may not associate with home economists:

  • The New Deal initiative for preschools
  • School lunch programs
  • Toll House Cookies
  • Safe food preservation
  • Designing practical clothing for women who became factory workers during WWII
  • How to sterilize wool and make cotton resistant to mildew
  • Nutrition research (calories, food groups, RDAs) after one-third of men called up for the draft in 1940 failed their physicals due to malnutrition!
  • Standardized sizing of clothing
  • Electrification of rural America
  • Military food service and rationing during WWI and WII.
  • Consumer education

Kind of a big deal, right?

Of course, there have been lots of influences on the field, for good and ill, especially as society moved forward with more and more women working outside the home. The “stitching and stirring” image of Home Ec class perhaps seems quaint, dated, and out of step with modern life. Moreover, “for 180 years, men in power have argued that kids should learn that stuff at home. But whom does that serve?” Teaching those skills takes time which is already in short supply.

If we’re serious about gender equality, perhaps Home Ec should be mandatory. Think of it as an adulting survival course with basic cooking, clothing repair, simple household tools and repairs, personal finance, consumer education, and decision-making.

“Home economics is, can, and should be an interdisciplinary, ecological field that explores the connections between our homes and the world with an eye to addressing the root causes of problems such as hunger, homelessness, isolation, and environmental devastation.”

Danielle Dreilinger

The Secret History of Home Economics is not only well-researched, but also surprising, feminist, diverse, and worthy. Recommend.

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