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Raising the Roof: Science, Feminism, and Home Economics

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 37, Number 3, September 2009
pp. 413-419 | 10.1353/rah.0.0121

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Megan Elias wishes us to take home economics seriously, not just as a major element in modern American history but, indeed, as a proto-feminist social movement that meant to empower women—and often did so. The reputation of home economics comes largely through its many critics, from traditionalists who claimed that its practitioners were out of touch with ordinary women to feminists who derided its concentration on material domesticity at the expense of gender equality. Elias credits the critics but moves decisively beyond them to give voice, and complex flavor, to the professors who created home economics as a discipline and then carried it through the American Century. These professionals thought carefully and creatively about women's role in society, proposing a program of modernization that promised science in the kitchen, companionship within marriage (and even help with the housework), and—at its outside limits—a general questioning of gender roles.

Elias's spirited (but not uncritical) defense of home economists represents a significant rethinking of the nation's most prominent domestic engineers. That said, the book's strengths and weaknesses are about evenly matched. Elias's account frequently reads like incongruous patchwork, and at times she puts a pinch too much yeast in her argument about home economists' feminism. Yet while it is too much to say that Stir It Up is a stirring work, this interesting and important book does knead together much interesting material, raising up a number of intriguing episodes while providing a generally satisfying analysis of home economics in twentieth-century American culture.

Stir It Up covers the field of home economics from its inception in the late nineteenth century to its current, uneasy (and differently named) manifestations. Home economics began with an ambitious group of female academics and reformers who applied Progressive ideals to demeaned domestic labor. Certain that housework could be elevated through academic study and the application of scientific principles, these self-consciously professional women forged departments in colleges and universities throughout the nation. Training young coeds in the science behind cleaning and cooking, as well as in the sociological analysis of household relationships, early home economists hoped to create a mass movement that would ultimately bring more respect to domestic tasks and those who performed them. Though this work did not challenge the gendered division of labor within the home, Elias argues that it allowed for a prominent place for female professors and their students, and—quite possibly—the many housewives who took their message to heart.

Although the home economics movement was initially quite successful, Elias shows that it suffered from several major problems. For one, home economists have had an extremely ambivalent relationship with corporations. As the twentieth century progressed, corporations lured many home economists away from the Ivory Tower, offering better pay and a similar mission: the belief that newer products might help American housewives cook and clean with greater efficiency and success. However, this "selling out" caused home economists to lose a good deal of their pull, both in academia and in the popular imagination. Similarly, their slackening academic vision, along with a shift in governmental funding, by mid-century turned home economists toward high school vocational education. This in turn helped contribute to the decline of creative sociological and scientific analysis of housework. As a result, by the late 1960s/early 1970s, Second Wave feminists far too easily condemned home economics, not understanding what Elias argues had traditionally been a real feminist nuance to their vision. By the late seventies, the field was in a major crisis. While facets of home economics still remain on college campuses (in forms now called dietetics, family studies, and the like), "home ec" has become synonymous with low-stakes high school preparation of cupcakes. Elias provides us with a rich context for why this happened, and she also effectively places the field within a tradition of female reformers and feminists throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Ultimately, Stir it Up successfully reveals how the trajectory of home economics tells us much about the cultural tensions swirling around women's labor, domestic work, and education.

Elias is particularly adept at uncovering both the explicit and subterranean feminist impulses in this...

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