What do chemistry, business, politics, and social justice have in common? I’m betting that no one would have automatically though “Home Economics!” but that’s exactly what The Secret History of Home Economics show. It all started with Catharine Beech, Olivia Washington (3rd wife of Booker T.), and Ellen Swallow in the late 1800s where educational opportunities for women were few and far between. By contextualizing studying chemistry as women as a way to develop better household practices, these ladies and more like them developed one of the few places women were both welcomed and could prosper in the academy and professionally. This would continue to be the case through World War I and World War II. Politics and social justice also played a role as many of the founding mothers and practitioners were African-American.
The education role and place of home ec in schools is half the focus of the book; the other half being how various women used those skills and degrees in careers. Some of these women got pretty far too; the nutritionist who was largely responsible for figuring out how astronauts would be able to eat in space both nutrition, physical, and practical, was a woman named Bea Finklestein, and Air Force dietitian. The rise and struggles of the women who worked in and developed the actual science and education of home economics is the main focus, but there’s also a good bit of social history as well, like how in the 1950s home economics started to shift towards training girls to be more emotionally aware of their husbands and children than themselves (housewives almost in the Stepford sense), but at the same time there’s some encouragement for men to share a bit in some of the household duties. It’s an odd contrast. There’s also some surprising judgey moments; while most of this book reads like the history that it is, there are occasional moments of labeling something “clap-trap” or “racist” which in fairness is usually accurate but the shift in tone though momentary is noticeable.
There’s some interesting trivia side notes like how the same man who invented Tang for General Mills (not NASA) was also responsible for Jello, Cool Whip, and Pop Rocks. The rise of consumerism in the 60s and 70s definitely shows the rise in the business side of the field, but then the fading that must have happened in the 80s and 90s kind of gets glossed over. There’s about two chapters at the end on how home ec went from serious chemistry, business, politics, and more to the middle school class on barely anything. Given how developed the field seems to get by the 70s, the fall feels like it’s overlooked; there’s kind of the hint that it’s sort of the fault of the politics of the public educational system in the late 70s and early 80s but I really would have liked to know more about what’s going on in the past 30 years or so in the field which is apparently still alive and well, just not as much as it used to be.