College Celebrates Pivotal Role in the History of Home Economics

By Lang, Susan | Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences, January 1, 2001 | Go to article overview
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College Celebrates Pivotal Role in the History of Home Economics


Lang, Susan, Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences


TRENDS, FORECASTS, AND IMAGES OF THE FUTURE

As the College of Human Ecology at Cornell celebrates the centennial of the field of home economics with events throughout the year, its faculty and administration are reflecting on the college's role as the gateway for women into higher education and scientific careers over the past century.

"Home economics was the major pathway for women into public education in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, providing entry to a wide variety of careers for women in academia, business, public education, government and health care up until the 1960s," said Joan Jacobs Brumberg, Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow and professor of human development at Cornell.

As a social and cultural historian of the United States, Brumberg explains that "historians no longer view home economics merely as glorified housewifery but as an early model of how American women began to apply basic research in science and medicine to the improvement of human lives, specifically to meet the needs of their families and communities."

Brumberg, who is teaching a new archival research course this fall, Exploring the History of Home Economics, acknowledges that although departments of home economics were "female ghettos," home economists were never confined to the home. They went public and helped raise the standard of living in the 20"' century. They disseminated information about medicine, improved sanitation and public health, child development, scientific nutrition, rural electrification and functional home and environmental design. They also were implicated in many of the progressive era reforms that led to the modern welfare state.

"Home economics deserves to be identified as one of the most important of the feminized service professions, along with teaching, nursing and social work," said Brumberg. "In the history of home economics lies the history of women in America in the 19 and 20'h centuries; it serves as an allegory for what has happened in terms of gender roles, changing families, labor force participation and the hegemony of science as a way of improving human life."

The centennial celebration marks the 100th anniversary of the hiring of Martha Van Rensselaer at Cornell to develop a reading course for farmers' wives that would bring new information about household management and child guidance to rural farm women.

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