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.