The Week (US)

The Secret History of Home Economics

- By Danielle Dreilinger

(Norton, $28)

Perhaps middle schoolers everywhere have underestim­ated home economics, said Barbara Spindel in The Wall Street Journal. The classroom subject’s origins were in fact “surprising­ly radical,” and Danielle Dreilinger’s spirited account of its century-plus-long history “suggests the often maligned field has always had both repressive and liberating impulses.” The founders of home ec focused on domestic life because they wished to free women of drudgery, not tie anyone to it.

Dreilinger spotlights some fascinatin­g early figures, said Katherine Powers in the Minneapoli­s Star Tribune. Chemist Ellen Swallow Richards, the first woman to teach at MIT, ushered in more female scholars by persuading philanthro­pists to fund a laboratory for research into sanitation and nutrition. Later, she was a driving force in the 1899 founding of the American Home Economics

Associatio­n. Though that organizati­on remained segregated until 1963, Dreilinger also hails the work of Black pioneers such as Margaret Murray Washington, who ran the domestic-science program at Tuskegee Institute. For both whites and Blacks, home economics became a field in which women could work outside the home developing domestic products or creating health guidelines. “The rot set in” as the 1950s turned the focus of home ec toward female “likability.”

Though Dreilinger would welcome a new commitment to home ec, “the field’s efforts at reinventio­n don’t inspire optimism,” said Virginia Postrel in The New York Times. Dreilinger wisely dismisses the 1994 name change from “home economics” to “family and consumer sciences,” but she doesn’t fully acknowledg­e that women no longer need to build careers in a ghetto or that the demands of home management aren’t what they were in 1899. Still, Dreilinger isn’t wrong to suggest that some less gendered version of the field should survive. This is, after all, the age of the “maker” movement. “People crave control over their immediate physical environmen­t. And they’re obsessed with food. Integrate some electronic­s and carpentry and you’ll have a hit—even if you call it home ec.”

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