The history of feminism—and women’s history more broadly—is replete with examples of female firsts in male-dominated areas of society. Increasingly, these histories have also been instrumental in highlighting the importance of traditionally feminine spheres. One such sphere is home economics. Although this field has been stereotyped as solely the domain of housewives without formal employment, for thousands of 20th-century women, home economics was very much a business.
Recently, I helped process the records of the Home Economists in Business (HEIB) section of the American Home Economics Association (AHEA). Throughout much of the 20th century, women employed as home economists worked in companies such as General Mills, the National Dairy Products Corporation, Procter & Gamble, and many more. They wrote recipes, developed strategies for effective cleaning, evaluated home appliances, and influenced clothing design. They then disseminated this information to the public, typically through marketing departments at their companies, articles in women’s magazines, and home economics college curricula.
While conducting background research on the HEIB, I was impressed by the expertise—particularly the scientific expertise—that many of the women in this organization, and in the wider field of home economics, possessed. The pioneer of home economics as a discipline, and later a profession, was Ellen Swallow Richards, a chemist and the first woman to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She founded the AHEA and worked tirelessly to teach women how to manage their households efficiently. Moreover, at least one home economics degree program, the household equipment specialization at Iowa State University, included lessons on how to take apart different appliances and put them back together. Here, women had at least a small avenue to explore applied physics and engineering in a socially sanctioned manner.
The job title of home economist has all but disappeared today. In fact, in 1990, HEIB chairman Annie Watts drafted a strongly worded letter to the Secretary of Labor upon noticing the absence of this job title in that year’s edition of the Occupational Outlook Handbook.
Nevertheless, home economists are hiding in plain sight. Marie Kondo, the author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, hosts a Netflix show where she teaches people how to organize their homes in ways that “spark joy.” Martha Stewart, a long-time expert in cooking, decorating, and other home economics skills hosts a cooking show with Snoop Dogg. And in the book Unf*ck Your Habitat, Rachel Hoffman addresses the need for gender equality in home cleaning, while also identifying the specific challenges of people with mental health issues and physical disabilities in keeping a tidy home.
These forms of media update and repackage home economics lessons for a modern audience without necessarily using the term “home economics.” However, their mere existence points to the continued importance of this field of knowledge. Personally, I never had a home economics class in high school, let alone in college. I am not the only one to miss out here, considering that, between 2002 and 2012, there was a 38 percent decline in the number of students enrolled in home economics classes.
Most of what I know about cleaning I learned from my mother (thanks, mom!), and I’ve picked up cooking and budgeting skills through self-education. Even so, I do feel that there is a lot more that I can learn. Many people in my generation and younger have flocked to classes in “adulting,” which are offered by public libraries, nonprofit organizations, and private businesses. As these sorts of classes continue to grow in popularity, it is my hope that more people will be able to link this current trend with the home economics professionals who paved the way.