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Journal of the History of Sexuality 15.1 (2006) 65-88

"Model Mamas":
The Domestic Partnership of Home Economics Pioneers Flora Rose and Martha Van Rensselaer
Megan Elias
Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York

In 1925, at an event honoring Martha Van Rensselaer, cochair of the Department of Home Economics at Cornell University, an alumna of the department commented to the assembled crowd that "she it is, with the partner she came to love and who came to love her, who has imparted to every girl who has had the great privilege of spending four years with them, an ideal of womanhood in service to mankind." 1 The partner Van Rensselaer came to love, her cochair of the department, was Flora Rose. Together the two women created the department at Cornell and stewarded its transition into an independent college of the university (also in 1925), simultaneously serving as pioneers and leaders in the home economics movement. The love between the two, as all who knew them acknowledged, went far beyond the collegial. The two women lived together from around 1908 until Van Rensselaer's death in 1932 and were so inseparable that they were often referred to collectively as Miss Van Rose.

Their relationship was treated by friends as both a model for and representative of other same-sex relationships within the home economics movement. Their partnership merits attention because of the complex truth noted in the celebration for Van Rensselaer above, that home economists defined and propagated "an ideal of womanhood in service to mankind." This service might be narrowly defined, in that female students in home economics departments were educated to provide ideal homes to the men they married, but it might also be understood more broadly, even heroically in the movement's own terms, in that the proper management of domestic matters both within and outside the home could bring about a more perfect society. [End Page 65]

Emerging at the end of the nineteenth century, the home economics movement sought to rationalize housework and to create new opportunities for women to work outside the home, largely in fields related to domesticity such as dietetics, interior design, and institutional management. By effecting changes both inside and outside the home, leaders of this movement attempted to change the social status of housework, raising it to the level of a profession. Early in the movement there were some who saw its potential as a means for training servants, but this group was quickly eclipsed by a larger number of people, mostly women, who saw the field as a way to improve society rather than simply to solve the "servant problem." The majority of professional home economists envisioned a home in which the woman of the house did most or all of the work, aided not just by new technologies but also by a new theorization of housework in which domestic labor could be interesting and fulfilling. 2

While the early leaders of the home economics movement built academic departments and developed a disciplinary field, they simultaneously created a community of like-minded activists. This community had a strong character of its own that stood in a complex and important relationship to the field and the ideals of the movement. While researching the history of the movement's first generation, I was struck by how many close female relationships emerged from archival materials and how many of the women involved in the home economics movement shared homes. Although significant figures in the movement such as Ellen Richards, a chemist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the acknowledged mother of the movement, and Agnes Fay Morgan, of the University of California at Berkeley, did marry, far more of the women lived with other women in arrangements that seemed to go beyond the economically convenient. 3 Indeed, each time I ventured into a new archive, another of these relationships emerged. The partnerships revealed themselves in many sources, including professional correspondence between colleagues...


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