Home economics. Many of us had some form of this in our middle or high school education; the more modern name for it is Family & Consumer Sciences. Budgeting, cooking, sewing, child care, and basic home repair are all skills that young adults need to know before heading off into adult life, but how did this come to be part of the school curriculum, and where has it gone these days, and why? Back in the day, the science of home economics was women’s foot in the door to a career, and in The Secret History of Home Economics: How Trailblazing Women Harnessed the Power of Home and Changed the Way We Live by Danielle Dreilinger (WW Norton Company, 2021), you’ll learn about how much more home economics has given not just the US but the world.
So often throughout history, women have been shut out- from decisions about their own lives, from government, from school, from the workplace. With the advent of the field of home economics, women finally had a in to not just a career, but the STEM fields. Suddenly, women were earning not just Bachelor’s degrees, but Master’s degrees and sometimes PhDs and working for gas companies, as nutritionists, in high-level teaching and administrative positions (although this last one didn’t happen nearly enough). And not just white women, either; home economics opened the door to education and careers for Black and Latina women as well.
Danielle Dreilinger recounts the full history of home economics in the US, from how it allowed women a place in the world, to how hypocrisy set in and working women began to tell younger girls that their place was in the home. She covers the many innovations and favorites credited to home economists: green bean casserole and sweet potato pie, clothing care labels, school lunch, Rice Krispie treats, the federal poverty level, and so much more. Home economics has always been more than high school sewing classes and cooking classes; it was a step up for women to embark in studying chemistry and engineering and holding positions of power. It’s never quite gotten the respect it deserves, but this book finally shines a spotlight that both showers the field with praise and spotlights its occasionally egregious missteps.
This is a dense, information-packed book that took me an entire week to read (granted, I had more than usual going on, so less time to read in general, but I still needed a lot of time to process everything in here). This isn’t a lighthearted glance at women in aprons, pearls, and heels doing the dusting; this is a history-heavy text that examines a field that, for the first time, really allowed women to access higher education- not always without a fight or a struggle, or without some sneering from men (who nevertheless enjoyed the fruits of home economics *eyeroll*), but it allowed women to more fully participate in the world and earn money for work they found fulfilling. That’s pretty huge.
Ms. Dreilinger makes an excellent case for home economics remaining a part of the school curriculum. In theory, I absolutely agree with her. These are skills everyone of every gender needs to learn for a happy, productive adult life, and she rightly points out that in today’s ridiculous world, parents are already tasked with doing and being everything; it’s impossible for some families, especially low-income families whose parents work multiple jobs, to find the time to teach your kids to cook, etc. I’m just not sure where to cram it in to the school curriculum either. We already demand so much from our schools and they’re not always able to fulfill those demands (often for very good reasons; it’s hard to teach kids who come to school suffering from various forms of trauma like hunger, poverty, abuse, grief, etc) even with the best of resources- which, as we all know, most schools don’t even have.
This is a book that will take you on a journey through women’s history and make you look at the field of home economics in a completely new way, and will leave you wondering where it will go in the future. Awesome read.