The surprising, often fiercely feminist, always fascinating, yet barely known, history of home economics.
The term “home economics” may conjure traumatic memories of lopsided hand-sewn pillows or sunken muffins. But common conception obscures the story of the revolutionary science of better living. The field exploded opportunities for women in the twentieth century by reducing domestic work and providing jobs as professors, engineers, chemists, and businesspeople. And it has something to teach us today.
In the surprising, often fiercely feminist and always fascinating The Secret History of Home Economics, Danielle Dreilinger traces the field’s history from Black colleges to Eleanor Roosevelt to Okinawa, from a Betty Crocker brigade to DIY techies. These women—and they were mostly women—became chemists and marketers, studied nutrition, health, and exercise, tested parachutes, created astronaut food, and took bold steps in childhood development and education.
Home economics followed the currents of American culture even as it shaped them. Dreilinger brings forward the racism within the movement along with the strides taken by women of color who were influential leaders and innovators. She also looks at the personal lives of home economics’ women, as they chose to be single, share lives with other women, or try for egalitarian marriages.
This groundbreaking and engaging history restores a denigrated subject to its rightful importance, as it reminds us that everyone should learn how to cook a meal, balance their account, and fight for a better world.
Journalist Dreilinger debuts with an eye-opening history of the field of home economics. Created in the late 19th century as a progressive, reform-minded discipline that sought to "change the world through the household," home economics was viewed by its founders, MIT chemist Ellen Swallow Richards (1842 1911) among them, as a natural subfield of economics that had the potential to eliminate both poverty and drudgery. Universities established home economics departments and the government sought out the expertise of leading home economists during both world wars and the Great Depression. Noting that African Americans were often excluded from professional organizations and opportunities, Dreilinger gives full consideration to the work of Black home economists including Flemmie Kittrell (1904 1980), whose career spanned academia, government service, and domestic and international civil rights activism. Detailing changes in American education that have largely marginalized the field since the 1980s, Dreilinger outlines steps for its revitalization, including diversification and a renewed emphasis on the life skills and transformative social and ecological vision the discipline at its best has espoused. With lively prose and engrossing portraits of dynamic and accomplished women, this is a vital and inspiring reassessment of an oft-caricatured field.