new home economics, part 1.

In my writing and research this week, I’ve been developing a thesis about the strange relationship between the disciplines of women’s studies and home economics. This is not, I realize, a topic that will sound sexy to the average layperson. And yet, I am fascinated by the possibility that Home Economics, the science of household efficiency and sanitation, can be understood not as the opposite, but as a precursor to Women’s Studies, broadly defined as the study of gender and culture.

I am being reductive here, any academic will understand immediately that the scope of knowledge defined by a given discipline is always contested. The way disciplines are structured is a political endeavor that has consequences for how (and what sorts of) knowledge are transmitted. Additionally, the structure of an academic department is determined by resources available for funding, which is sometimes determined by state governments, and other times, by boards of directors. The question of what department gets to expand, which department gets eliminated, and which two are smashed together to form a new one with a new name is highly contentious. The respective histories of home economics departments (which were largely folded into departments of Human Resources, Human Services, and Human Ecology), and women’s studies departments (most of which are now called by other names– Gender Studies, Women’s and Gender Studies, Gender and Sexuality Studies, etc.) are a case in point.

It is because of all of the above mentioned reasons that I myself am interested in the institutionalization of academic disciplines, what one of my teacher refers to alternatively as field formation and institutional history. On top of all of that, I am an inter-disciplinary scholar, which means that my work does not fit squarely in any one place. What I research certainly fits within the realm of women’s studies, but since I am working on a project that considers femininity, home economics is also part of the story.

Home Economics was institutionalized around the year 1900, a fact which was codified by the formation of a scholarly journal (The Journal of Home Economics) and a professional association, The American Home Economics Association. Before I started researching this project, I associated home economics with a class I took in middle school, where I learned to sew a pillow that sat atop the stool I made in shop class. I also vaguely remember baking brownies and learning how to write a check. Mostly, I remember a kindly young teacher whom I would often visit during my lunch period, since her classroom was a much more desirable place to hang out than the cafeteria.

Home Economics, sometimes known as Domestic Science, is actually much more interesting than the curriculum of your average “home ec.” class would suggest. Home Economists were trailblazers in nutrition science, water sanitation, design, and countless other incredibly useful fields of knowledge. They brought scientific knowledge to bear on the home, and taught their students how to apply the skills they learned in the classroom to everyday life.

What is most interesting (to me) about this field of study is that it was the first place where women originally found a place in higher education. Home Economics pioneers like Lydia Maria Child, Charlotte Perkins Gillman, and Ellen H. Richards were proto-feminists. In Home Economics Departments they found institutional support to do research that they deemed vital to their communities. At stake, for these women, was how to organize the home in a way that promoted the health and general welfare of families (and especially children).

The great irony I see here is that home economics faded into obscurity around the same time as the arrival of second wave feminism (and academic programs in women’s studies). It was not a matter of simple cause and effect, but it is true that as women’s studies found a place in major universities, home economics departments were being eliminated and/or submerged into other disciplines.

Have I peaked your interest? I’ll continue posting about this as I work through the questions in my writing.




Death Becomes Her [Mad Men: Season 4, Episode 9]

RIP Ida Blankenship, we will miss you dearly, and your wise words of wisdom at every turn. This was an episode about women, young and old, trying to make due in a world that is not suited to their wants and needs. Taking my cue from dear old Blankenship, I’m going to use my post today to elucidate some of the incredible women standing in the background of Don Draper, Roger Sterling, and Bert Cooper.

It’s a business of sadists and masochists, and you know which one you are.  This week, we watched Peggy go on a date with Abe, a left thinking writer and avid reader of the village voice. When Abe criticizes Peggy for working at an agency that does business with racist corporations, she quickly beats him at his own game. Peggy lucidly pokes holes in Abe’s easy ‘anti-establishment’ rhetoric, pointing out the fact that most of the companies she engages with are family owned and organized. Moreover, if she were to take a true political stand, she could never do business with any one. While some of the companies she works for are racist, all of them are sexist. Abe, faced with Peggy’s proto-feminist sentiments, merely laughs: ‘a civil rights march for women?’. Well yes, Abe, precisely. Peggy is, in her own words, ‘not a political person.’ And yet on a personal level, she is keenly aware of the ways that sex functions in the workplace. Everyone assumes she has earned her position as copywriter by sleeping with Don, and so she is constantly trying to prove herself. She sacrifices not only her lunch hour, but her personal relationships on behalf of her ‘work,’ only to be dismissed by her boss who can’t talk to her until he’s had his afternoon nap. The severity of the situation of gender is such that even a radical like Abe can’t understand what Peggy is talking about. This episode seemed to perfectly encapsulate that tired old feminist slogan from the seventies: the personal is political. Peggy may not be a political person, but her personal life has political relevance, and it seems like she is finally starting to realize it. I look forward to seeing what happens with old Abe, who is surely not gone for good. Will he publish his piece out of spite or will Peggy have a change of heart?

She’s pushy, that one, I guess that’s what it takes. Dr. Faye has taken a lover in Don, and it seems like the sex might be mutually satisfying, a nice change from the monotony of Don’s former partners. But Faye is in dangerous territory. She’s not only sleeping with her boss, she also seems to be falling in love with him. When Sally showed up at the office, Don asked Faye to take her home and babysit. The next day, when Sally had a break down, he asked Faye to deal with it. At the end of the episode, she confronted Don with her insecurities. She is worried that she failed the ‘mother-test’ because she was not capable of calming Sally down. But why is this the critique? Why is she not angry at Don for treating her like a secretary… for demanding that she do the maternal work of caring for his child? Of course, Faye views Don’s treatment not as sexist, but as generous. She is thrilled that he would entrust his child to her care… this must mean he really likes her. I’m not quite convinced…

She looked so chubby in the pictures. Kiernan Shipka was dazzling this week as Sally Draper; she delivered every line with just the right mix of sexual innuendo and childish play. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Sally arrives at SCDP mid-morning, accompanied by a woman who found her dodging the conductor on the commuter rail from Ossening to Manhattan. When Don apologizes to this good Samaritan, she merely replies “men never know what’s going on.” This line encapsulates all of the plot lines that occurred this week, but most poignantly in the case of Sally Draper. When Don calls Betty to pick up her daughter, she tells him she will collect her at her own convenience, the following evening. The implication is that things at home are far worse than we know.  Don is thus stuck with his daughter for 36 hours. As usual, the parents are incapable of disciplining the children. Don tells Sally she must never do this again, and then proceeds to order a pizza and take the morning off so he can take his daughter to the zoo.

Sally looked positively thrilled to be laying on the couch with her dad all to herself. And here is where I must make my Freudian critique: Sally was clearly attempting to seduce her father into letting her live with him. My roommate was appalled by this reading, but it was textbook Freud. For Freud, part of the trauma of growing up (especially for the girl-child) is the knowledge that you are not in fact the only object of your mother’s love. As a baby, the mother nurses the baby, and loves it unconditionally. This unselfish and pure love is only temporary… soon the baby must begin to eat solid food, and once taken from the mother’s breast, life is never the same. The child learns that the mother’s love is directed not at her, but at the father.  The girl child knows she cannot satisfy the mother, she feels a profound lack, and envies the boy child for his penis. Unconsciously, the girl resents her mother for desiring the father, and so she attempts to win the father’s love for herself. “Daddy’s little girl” takes on a whole new meaning.

The theory relies on the assumption that all of our relationships to other people are (in some sense) libidinal… we may not realize it, but sex is always part of the equation. All of this made Sally’s behavior in last night’s episode all the more meaningful. She is threatened by Faye’s hold on her father… when Don tells her she might get to meet Faye again sometime, she responds with a simple “oh.” But that small word was full of resentment and frustration, as if to say, but Daddy, you said you weren’t going to marry her!  Sally wakes up early and makes Don breakfast… when Don tells her not to use the stove she coyly replies “Oh Daddy, I do it all the time.” All of this is made all the more significant because we know that Sally has discovered her own sexuality…  she is no longer an innocent little girl. She has asserted her own desire, and is projecting it onto her father. Perhaps you think this Freudian stuff is crazy-talk, but I find it hard to imagine watching last night’s episode and NOT sensing something slightly provocative in Sally’s behavior.

There’s much more to say about the women in this episode, but I’m off for now,I’ll leave you to ruminate (consciously or not) on penis-envy and the astronomical prowess of Ida Blankenship:)

New Ideas: Mad Men [Season 4, Episode 4]

Last night, Mad Men Season 4 finally hit its stride. It’s not that the writing has been bad, it just hasn’t been this good in quite some time. At its best, this show is a history of the present. It documents in impeccable detail, how we got where we are today via a cozy reconstruction of the past.  Any historical fiction is first and foremost a fiction, and in the case of Mad Men, this fiction tells us more about the present than the past it attempts to put to life. What is so striking about Mad Men is that its history lesson is never about enormous cultural moments; the assassinations and social movements that define the 1960s in history books are always mere background on the show. This feels right. Last night Peggy was shocked to hear that Malcolm X had been shot. This kind of detail is what makes Mad Men so compelling. The moments that have made the history books barely brush the surface of the characters everyday lives, and yet they have important effects. The shooting of Malcolm X may not have been significant to Don or Roger or Peggy, but to the viewer, this signals something about the culture at large. Things are getting intense. But enough about my big-picture theories, let’s get down to specifics. Last night’s episode was an episode about Peggy and Don in a couple of important ways. The writing pointed out the parallel lives Don and Peggy seem to leading, especially in their relationships to other people, their understanding of advertising, of art, and of the culture in which they live.

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