The Secret History of Home Economics

Since its start, Home Economics has been an outlier on college campuses. It never gained full respect from colleagues. Despite its limitations Home Economics made contributions on campus and in public policy. Danielle Dreilinger traces the triumph and struggles of the underlying disciplines. Her book tells us How Trailblazing Women Harnessed the Power of Home and Changed the Way We Live. I recommend it to all who question the role of Home Economics or the derivatives of its tradition. Most of us learn more about ourselves with an appreciation of the history of our profession.

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Home Economics has been a part of my life from birth. My mother was a home economist. What she planned and prepared was what I ate for most of the first 20 years of my life. My dad was a food scientist. My parents showed me that collaboration between the two fields was possible. I grew up with a healthy respect for both professions, following my dad’s path into Food Science. Later in life I became chief Food Science recruiter at University of Georgia. Too often a Food Science major defected to become a Nutrition or Dietetics major. I stay in contact with one potential recruit who got away and does well as a practicing dietitian.

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Ahead of their time. In a male-dominated world, Home Economics offered a place for women to study, teach, and do research. Some home economists gained their reputation through their scientific research. Ellen Swallow was the first woman graduate of MIT and later served as the first woman on its faculty. Her research contributions were in water quality and environmental chemistry. Others gained prominence through their association with famous men. Catherine Beecher, daughter of the famous abolitionist, wrote the first home-economics textbook. Margaret Murray attended Fisk and taught at Tuskegee. Her marriage to Booker T. Washington helped spread home economics to Black colleges. These pioneers overcame challenges to establish the discipline across the growing nation.

Activism under the radar. Disrespect has its advantages. Activists are free to operate when no one is paying attention. Home economists advocated for unpopular issues. They were quiet feminists before feminism was cool. On college campuses, Home Economics became a home for women not welcome elsewhere. The degrees opened up new areas of employment for women. The American Home Economics Association endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment without fanfare. Later efforts focused on gender equality and related issues. Home economists studied the plight of children in American homes. They advocated for child care and children’s rights. These efforts led to advocacy for consumer rights, environmentalism, and sex education. Skilled professionals provided training in efficient housekeeping skills. Classes offered home cooks courses in cooking, healthy diets, and nutrition.

Home economists appeared in community settings and invaded local radio waves. They became the link between food companies or equipment manufacturers and the public. The link went both ways. These professionals designed recipes. They led sessions on the proper use of kitchen appliances. Then they took back to the industry ideas of how to improve the food or appliances. Lawmakers and federal agencies came to home economics for help with family issues. These dedicated feminists acted below the radar working for incremental but lasting change.

Separate but not equal. A similar Home Economics track emerged in Black colleges. Racism kept Black counterparts out of white organizations. These women met with the same challenges and opportunities as their white counterparts. Despite the discrimination, Black home economists gained leadership opportunities. The profession gained stature through the leadership of Margaret Murray Washington. It was not until the 1960s that Black home economists found entry to white organizations.

The home for nutrition across the nation settled in Colleges of Home Economics. The research wasn’t ‘pure’ enough for Physics, Chemistry, or Biology departments. The field advanced by many women scientists and a few men. Much of what we know about nutrition today came from these programs. Results are not as clear-cut in nutrition research as those in the basic sciences. Food and humans are much more complex than the model systems ‘real’ scientists study. Does the bias against Nutrition today by male journalists stem from gender differences?

Enter food technology. Relationships between Home Economics and Agriculture grew across college campuses and within states. They shared professional issues and County Extension offices. Their mission was to extend knowledge gained on campus to the populace of the state. It is unfortunate that Dreilinger ignores the emergence of food technology and science. A rivalry and tension developed between food scientists and nutritionists. So, I diverge here to explain my understanding of that relationship, Italicized below.

Most departments in the Ag School contained a few scientists who studied products. They focused on dairy or vegetable or other agricultural products. After WWII, these scientists broke away to form Food Technology departments. Like most departments in Agriculture, Food Technology was male dominated. It emphasized food processing as opposed to home cooking. Professionals with a research interest in microbiology and engineering entered the field. Some researchers became interested in industrial formulations. At some schools there was cooperation. Some colleges even married the two disciplines. At most schools there developed a fierce rivalry.

In the intervening years much has changed and much has stayed the same. Many Food Technology departments became Food Science departments. Nutrition is still dominated by women. Women now exceed the number of men as food science students. Male domination of Food Science faculties wanes. Home economists found positions in the food industry, but they were type-cast. For many years companies hired these graduates for home-recipe development and consumer relations. We now see Nutrition graduates working as product developers and sensory scientists.

a package of Beyond Meat beefy crumbles
How do nutritionists and food scientists view plant-based meats? Can they reach common ground?

Graduates of Nutrition programs have different views on food from Food Science graduates. Like most old people, I look back with fondness on my grad-school days. I was fortunate in my selection of schools. Both programs in Georgia and Massachusetts combined Food Science and Human Nutrition. At the University of Florida, we experienced excellent cross-fertilization of ideas. We took courses together and even organized a joint journal club that met at noon each week. The University of Massachusetts had the first marriage of the two disciplines. It later observed the first divorce. I noted a visible demarcation between the two wings of the building. The indented, metal strip on the floor represented deeper divisions in perspective. A stimulating course spanned the two disciplines. It cycled through six instructors with each one teaching a two-week segment. The camaraderie and vibes were not the same I found at Florida. When I went to Georgia as a member of the faculty, two colleges housed the two departments. The animosity between the two programs was evident and distressing.

I don’t call for further merging of programs. Developing a better understanding and appreciation across disciplines would help. Nutrition majors have little concept of what happens to food during processing. Their food science counterparts have little interest in the finer aspects of nutrition. Critics bombard both fields. Such critics have little or no background in the science of either discipline. Sure, these disciplines have major differences in perspective. Both fields understand food and its properties that their opponents fail to appreciate. Finding common ground can help both fields move forward. Continued division will hurt both professions.

What’s in a name? Home Economics never achieved the respect it deserved. Home Economics made many notable contributions to nutrition, ecology, and other fields. The name, though, sounds so 1950s. The search for a more contemporary name was on. The American Home Economics Association no longer exists. It became the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences. Many Colleges of Home Economics became Colleges of Family and Consumer Sciences. Others adopted the name Human Ecology. Future Homemakers of America morphed into Family, Career and Community Leaders of America. Some departments like Textile Science felt that the new names did not fit their missions. A recent movement to re-instate Home Economics as its moniker is not a probable outcome.

Bottom line. The Secret History of Home Economics is a delightful book. Anyone from those fields housed under its name should read it. Food scientists will gain a better understanding of advances in nutrition from this book. I wish the author included discussion of the relationship between nutrition and food science. Dreilinger gives credit to home economists for some advances that should go to food scientists. Despite that minor criticism, I am happy to recommend it to readers with an interest in food or nutrition.

Next week: A dietitian answers questions posed to those who wish to eliminate ultra-processed foods

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