Throwback: The Hidden History of Home Ec
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When most people think of home economics, they imagine women baking muffins and caring for practice babies. But this week, we’re learning that the field was much more than just “stitching and stirring.” It was an empowering way for women to gain respect and recognition. Journalist and author Danielle Dreilinger joins V for a look back at the history of home economics and how it shaped American culture. We’ll hear about the personal lives of home economics women who decided to either stay at home or join the workforce. Plus, what role HBCUs and science universities like MIT played in creating this field, and how unsung economists of color helped push the movement forward.
Follow Danielle on Twitter at @djdreilinger.
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V Spehar, Danielle Dreilinger
V Spehar 00:05
Hey friends, it’s Friday, August 19th, 2022. I’m V SPEHAR, Welcome to V INTERESTING. So folks, today we’re going to take a little break from politics because I was sent a book to my little PO Box. It was a wonderful sunny day when this book arrived, I took it straight to the lake for a read. The book is titled, The Secret History of home economics. How trailblazing women harnessed the power of home and changed the way we live. Now, I don’t know about you, but I had to take home […] in high school, it was the 90s but being a baby feminist, I demanded to be switched out of Home Ec and into the woodshop. Because, you know, girls can use power tools too. And while that is true, it wasn’t true for me, I was not one of those girls who should be using power tools. So I was kicked out of woodshop for misusing the tools. And my shop teacher, the Dear Mr. […] ended up just making me little tap shoes out of brass tacks and letting me practice my routines for the spring musical during my woodshop period instead, and we love him for it. Thank you so much, Mr. […]. Now, it’s been about 20 years since I thought about home AK or wood shop or tap dancing to be honest, and suitably known to me. Here I am with this book about Home Ec and I absolutely loved it. I am so excited that the author of The Secret History of home economics is here with me today. Danielle dry linger is a journalist with the USA Today network and Gwinnett, who was named best features writer by the Louisiana Press Association. She previously spent five years covering education down in New Orleans which probably proved helpful for this wonderful deep dive into the now almost forgotten school subjects of Home Ec. In this book, we go beyond the flour, butter sugar and get into the real meat and potatoes of Home Ec history from the unsung black women who led agriculture science and nutrition education to the dark history involving Native American Residential Schools and forced assimilation to the white standard of home training. Home Ec is more than just the corn muffins pin cushions and half baked cookies you remember Danielle Dreilinger, thank you so much for joining me to talk about the science of better living and how Home Ec changed our lives.
Danielle Dreilinger 02:28
Thank you for having me.
V Spehar 02:30
So, I want to start off by asking just like what brought you to this moment? Why did you write this book.
Danielle Dreilinger 02:36
So I have a kind of unromantic way that I got the idea. So normally, when I’m a journalist, when normally when journalists write books, it’s because we have found a story in our day job reporting, that was so amazing that we couldn’t let go. This was not that I had been covering schools for about four or five years. But I had not actually heard about home economics, even though it is still around. It’s usually called Family and Consumer Sciences these days. But I certainly had done some reporting on the revival of career education. And you know, parents pushing back against standardized tests. And then you know, you think of the big societal trends, right, with people worrying about adulting, right, like our kids learning how to just take care of themselves in this world. And I wanted to write a book, and I was thinking about what sort of idea I needed to have, because I didn’t like any of the ideas I had. And I thought, well, it has to concern education, because I was covering education, it has to be about history, because I love history, and race, gender and class, because otherwise, it just felt like it wouldn’t be relevant. Right? And then the missing piece, the little X factor was I was interviewing for journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan. And they said, what do you like to do in your spare time? And I said, I cook a lot. And they said, oh, the library here has this amazing culinary collection. And if you’ve got this fellowship, you could come and use it. And I could just see myself light up. So I just added them to the mix, right? And I thought, okay, cooking. My book should also have something to do with food. And a couple of weeks later, I just sat up and I was like, Oh, wait, Home Economics. You know, the class that used to teach girls how to cook right there. We have all of it together.
V Spehar 04:25
And it was girls. I mean, we’re gonna get to it. But this was school for girls.
Danielle Dreilinger 04:30
And just immediately I thought, like, before I knew anything about the subject, I felt like wow, this fits so or this fits our cultural moment. So well, like why isn’t enact by now. Then I started doing research and the first thing that I learned was that one of the founders of home economics was the first woman to go to MIT. And that moment, I was like, total mind blown, right like this. There. There’s there There’s so much here that nobody knows about and there is.
V Spehar 05:03
Yeah. And I’m so excited that you wrote about this. I grew up in the 90s, and went to Home Economics class. And I actually got moved out of Home Ec and into woodshop, which was uncommon. So I am a person now who loves to cook, I spent much of my career in the culinary industry. When I think of Home Ec, I’m not thinking of really learning a lot of good life skills in my day Home Ec, and this is part of why I switched. We were making cookies for the boys often. And we were learning how to sew, which I wish I did know how to sew. But it wasn’t anything. They didn’t make it cool. It wasn’t like, oh, we’re gonna teach you how to make like cool clothes, or how to mend things that would be useful to you. It felt very much like a phoned in class. It felt like a class that people sort of didn’t take serious. I’m not even sure the teacher took it serious anymore. She was like 90 million years old. And it just like given up on us. And I sew for like months, I just baked cookies, and they would walk them over to woodshop where they were making cool stuff like baseball bats and like little wood block systems that they would put in their trunk to put like their stereos in and stuff. Wow, that sounds like fun and Adirondack chairs. I remember thinking that was really cool. When people hear the term home economics, what are they thinking of?
Danielle Dreilinger 06:20
Oh, they’re thinking of the was called stitching and stirring? They’re thinking of dumb sewing projects and corn muffins.
V Spehar 06:29
That’s me. That’s what they were. So it is that it was a universal experience.
Danielle Dreilinger 06:33
Yes. And I mean, there’s an, I ended up writing multiple chapters in the book, trying to explore how something that started as this women’s empowerment project to bring science into the home, free women from drudgery and create jobs, create this enormous range of careers for women, where they would be accepted, because it was somewhat connected even tangentially to things that they had traditionally done in the home, and how it went south. Because, yeah, I mean, I had so many people tell me the same stories and my own home economics experience, I took home back in 1990 or so in middle school in New York State. And I have a vague memory of nutrition. And I have a vague memory of muffins. And I have a strong memory of sewing this cushion like the stuffed animal. And I chose the most advanced option because I was a little apple polishing over achiever, and it was a frozen banana.
V Spehar 07:35
So Danielle, tell me a little bit about how Home Economics even got started, like what’s the origin here?
Danielle Dreilinger 07:40
So it got started in the early 1840s, with a book written by Katherine Beecher, who, nowadays is best known as the sister of the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But at the time, she was this pioneering women’s educator, because she was in the first generation of girls who even went to school. And she founded high schools for girls. And then came to believe that girls should also be taught life skills and housekeeping skills, but like a real wide array like she believed in calisthenics in PE in knowing how to build things around the house. And she believed that this was a subject that should be taught in school. So this was a best-selling book that sold for decades. And then the real push for Home Economics came after the Civil War, when you have this explosion of schools for people and colleges for people who had not been educated, so girls, scientists, people of color, people from out in the rural, Midwestern, then conserve Western US. And they were looking at what to teach them. And one of these fields was what became home economics. And it really got fully started in the 1890s. Also, you had middle class women who were taking cooking classes, because all of the people who had been doing the housework were either emancipated or had gone to work in factories. So they’re looking at the Industrial Revolution, and all of the ways that had completely changed the home because the home wasn’t economically productive anymore. So yeah, so women, both at Berle universities and Black universities and at science universities, like MIT, got together and created this field that they decided should be called home economics because they thought that sounded fancier than what it had been known as, which is domestic economy, domestic science, and they were going to bring science into the home and just like, focus on what actually needed to be done, to live a healthy life to make a house a home, free you up to do paid work, or anything else that you wanted to do. And yes to create these jobs. So they created programs in Hotel Management in cafeteria management, the school lunch lady that was a home economics project, early childhood education, all of these textile chemists, chemists of all sorts, like women could get jobs as chemists and home economics, because they were studying like meat proteins, but they couldn’t get jobs as chemists studying, you know, elect or you they couldn’t do electrical engineering, but they could work on household equipment.
V Spehar 10:25
Right, right. Because in the 1840s, there was a lot going on with women’s liberation. And it seems like home economics was coming up around the same time.
Danielle Dreilinger 10:33
Yes. And because they were noticing, right, like the, there were lots of women who had always worked out of the house, right, women of color had always worked out of the house, white women were starting to have their roles change as well. And there was all this ferment over, you know, is this good is this bad. And most of the women who started home economics, certainly almost all of the women who were working in home economics for decades, like they were career women, they weren’t married, they weren’t mothers, a few of them were married, very few of them had children, those who had children, their husbands had, you know, left the building, they wanted to work, and they wanted to find the way to lead these independent, empowered lives. And they, you know, subverted all of these home stereotypes to make it a place of power, where they could do what they wanted. And they created their own college departments that for many years was, that’s where most of the women faculty at colleges, they were in the home economics department.
V Spehar 11:37
Right, this stereotype misses the big picture of what home economics really embodies. And what surprised me when I was reading the book is that home EQ included things like bride schools and practice babies, like you say in there, it’s a lot more than baking, lumpy blueberry muffins. What are some things that surprised you when beginning research in this field?
Danielle Dreilinger 11:57
Well, a lot, but yeah, let’s go with the practice babies, because that is something that really, it raises eyebrows, I’m gonna say, like, stick with me, it makes sense within the context. So childcare was actually not part of the very earliest wave of home economics, probably because these women mostly weren’t mothers. But in the early 1910s 1920s, there was this wave of interest in parenting, and parenting, you know, parenting guides, the Children’s Bureau of government, there was funding for home economics to do work in these areas. And they decided to create child development courses. And they already had created something called a home management house. The first one was actually at Black College in Atlanta. And these were these like living labs, where women would, the seniors would go and live for like six weeks, and they would take care of the house. And this would be like a project, right? They would figure out the budget, they would have some get together, they would figure out the cleaning the cooking, and in a way it was, but this point, home economics was starting to think about, like, most of the women who take this course are going to be wives and mothers. So we should be preparing them for this. So in a way, it was supposed to be like, you know, playing house, basically, of professional playing house. But as you know, one of the scholars I read pointed out, like, it was one of the many ways that home economics, like kind of turned gender norms on their head, right? Because this was not like a heterosexual nuclear family situation, right? Like, Wow, what’s this called, called a feminist commune, would have like eight women living in a house together, taking care of it. And so when they were doing child development and adding it to this mix, I thought, well, here’s this practice house, you know, what it needs is a practice, baby. So they got babies in the 1920s. And they would usually borrow them from orphanages, and they would have one in a house and the students would take care of the baby as well as doing everything else. They would have like a supervisor like a student live someone living in or a professor right for school breaks. It’s not like they took the baby home with them or anything like that, like you know that hermit crab from your second grade class.
V Spehar 14:34
Did they just lock the baby up at the school or did the baby gets […]?
Danielle Dreilinger 14:38
I mean, they would play with the baby. They were learning how to take care of and the funny thing is that not only was this seen as normal, but this was seen as like really terrific because these babies were being like the press coverage is unwillingly hilarious, because these babies were being breezed by, like the most scientifically approved methods. And this was a time when childcare was looked at, you know, as a series of tasks they weren’t worried about, like, oh, geez, attachment parenting or like cultivating self-esteem. And to be honest, like, if you think about it, it goes, this baby was in an orphanage with any number of other children, it really flipped the care ratio, right? It was one baby with multiple caretakers. So they got healthier. They were, you know, in good health, and they were very popular to adopt afterwards.
V Spehar 15:38
Yes, because all of what I love about this book is I love history. And I love women’s history just happens to be something I’ve always been very interested in how those things intersect, in particular, in America, in New York, and we are going to take just a quick break there. And then we’re going to come back and we’re going to talk about chapter four. Perhaps it wasn’t really a man’s job after all, and how men played into the building of the Home Economics curriculum. Okay, welcome back. As promised, we’re going to talk about men’s role in home economics. We were talking about women in the feminist movement and some of the stuff that was going on in the late 1800s, early 1900s. In chapter four, here, you title it, perhaps it wasn’t really a man’s job. After all, what does that mean?
Danielle Dreilinger 16:31
So that is a really funny line from a home economics college, like department magazine article from the 30s. It was Iowa State, which had this amazing program in household equipment, they called it, and it was basically electrical engineering and girl drag. Some of the women who went through this course, during World War Two, they were hired as engineers to replace men who had gone to the front. And it was a prop. It was a program that taught you how to deal with all of this new electrical equipment that was inside the house. And they had this funny story, right of where like, the stove broke, and the housewife needs to has people coming over for dinner, and the repairman can’t make it. And so she just takes her pliers, and she fixes it. And she says, maybe it wasn’t a man’s job after all.
V Spehar 17:34
Sort of a backhanded empowerment, I suppose.
Danielle Dreilinger 17:37
And so you know, the role of men in home economics was fascinating and complicated and kind of weird. First of all, until it was totally it wasn’t girls field. And that wasn’t the way that home economist wanted it like they would periodically they would make efforts to bring men into the field. Because after World War Two, they started pushing more like this idea that being woman’s work. But before that, it was just work that anybody could do. And it just so happened that women pretty much always did it. So they had they had classes for boys, they might call them something cute. It might be directed towards like bacheloring. I mean, they made the point that oh, man who went to military school, like they learned to do all these things. The Navy has cooks, you know.
V Spehar 18:32
Yes, the Navy has cooks, you learn how to sew in the army. There’s a lot of domestic engineering that happens in that, you know, male dominated fields to this day even.
Danielle Dreilinger 18:41
Yeah, yeah. And so, but early on, it was very important for the home economics movement to have some important male champions, which it did. But at the same time, mostly what men did empowerment and power did was subverting the women’s empowerment goal of home economics, because you know, the big problem with this is when you’re reclaiming and bringing, venting and redirecting the power of the home. It is real easy for men and power to say like, oh, how cute you’re doing women’s work, like yep, that’s what you’re doing. It’s women’s work. You know what women are fit to do? Housework. And it was especially significant for women of color. Because you have these accounts of young black girls, young Hispanic girls in California, like Native American girls being pushed into like heavy Home Economics curriculum, because they were just going to be maids or mothers as the you know, racist people in charge thought. And so men were and women were in charge of their departments of home economics and colleges, but men were in charge of the universities and men were generally in charge of the K12 systems with as they are to this day, despite teachers being you know, mostly women, though Home Economic we’re always fighting for recognition, and fighting for respect. This is a fight that in the 50s and 60s They absolutely lost. And even at the time, like they had, they could only be so open about what they were doing. So Carolyn Hunt, a really fascinating, early home economist who wrote, you know, these philosophical treatises that you can read today and say, like, Yes, this is how the world should be. She lost her job at the university, I think, was the University of Wisconsin, because she was saying, we don’t need to be teaching cooking. That’s not what, that’s not what making a home is about. We need to be teaching these like deeper philosophical concepts. She lost her job. Meanwhile, at Cornell, Martha Van Rensselaer and Flora Rose, you know, they made, they catered for the president’s office, on top of their jobs like they were, you know, the women bringing the cupcakes to the meetings, because they knew that they had to play along in that way in order to get what they wanted.
V Spehar 21:00
And then you’re seeing this reversal in this sort of beating down of people who were advancing the home economics and home fields, come up against the nuclear family and the civil rights movement. And we’re going to come back and talk a little bit about how Black women were leading this movement, what was happening with Indigenous children, and the assimilation, just some of the darker side of the home economics history. So we’re back with author of The Secret History of home economics, Danielle Dreiling. Her and we’re going to talk a little bit now about black woman’s role in shaping this field and leading this towards the civil rights movement. Beginning with Margaret Murray, Washington, who was one of the most influential black leaders of her day you talk about her a bunch in the book, and about her message of empowering the middle class and the home to lift up communities. Can you just give us a little background on Margaret Murray Washington, who I don’t think folks are probably too familiar with.
Danielle Dreilinger 22:14
Right, right. And she, I had no idea who she was right. She was an extraordinary person. She was born in towards the end of the Civil War in Mississippi. Her mother was a washerwoman her father was an Irish railroad man who, you know, was not in the picture. And, I mean, there were no schools for black children, you know, anywhere around. But a brother and sister white family from the north, they were Quakers came down after the Civil War to help educate black children. After teaching as much as they could, they sent her to Fisk in Nashville Fisk college, which was, you know, a really long way before the like, interstate highway system, right? And she got upon graduation, she got a job as an English teacher at Tuskegee, which was quite new. And she, along with teaching, the students at Tuskegee trades, that they would need to be able to support themselves like millenary, and running a laundromat, and, you know, cooking. She did all of this community education, where she went and sent students out to these plantations to help women take care of their homes better and take care of their children better these women who were, you know, impoverished, she wrote a housekeeping guide for them with her the other women in the Tuskegee Women’s Club. And like, you know, as far as I can tell, it was like, I certainly have never seen any earlier, housekeeping manual for poor southern black women. And she did all of this community education, believing that taking care of yourself and having you know, was economically productive, would lead to self-respect was a way to gain respect from whites. But also even if like the Whites never noticed, it was important for, you know, self-esteem, which was a political statement in and of itself.
V Spehar 24:20
And we’re going to talk about how White families often as white women were moving towards working outside the home more and wanted these careers were leaning on the labor of black Hispanic, and indigenous women to supplement what they were no longer willing to do in the home. And I know you had talked a little bit about the schools that were training indigenous children as an example in home economics, expecting that these children would just step into the role of housekeeper and maid.
Danielle Dreilinger 24:54
Where I focus on that most of all, my book was the 1910s and 1920s because there was such a yeah, it was such a fervently anti-immigration time it was the start of the eugenics movement. And there’s all of these curricula, like there’s Indian fair, I forget what the, the agency was called at that time. But you know, what it is now the Bureau of Indian Affairs curriculum for their boarding schools, in which they were, you know, killing trying to, you know, quote, unquote, kill the Indian and often actually literally killing the Indian, that was often upset. Yeah, sometimes literally, killing the Indian
V Spehar 25:35
frequently. Yeah, we had to indigenous activists on just a couple of weeks ago, talking about the dangers and the lasting implications of residential schools. And right here it is, you know, again, coming up as something that we weren’t taught and that we need to know much more about. But propaganda and trends of the time continued to shape home economics with the selling of Mrs. Housewife. So we went from, we’re going to force people to be house managers, and maids and housekeepers, and children to oh, no, that is actually the role of a successful wife and mother, regardless of the social class or color of her skin. And they started really selling again, Mrs. housewife who, all of a sudden, now we needed that home training again, can you tell me about what led to that?
Danielle Dreilinger 26:20
So Home Economics, in the 20s, opened this created this whole new line of jobs in business. So home economists, and business was this glamorous profession, it was the best paid of the Home Economics professions. And mostly, you were working for a corporation. And it was, yeah, there’s a lot of tension there. But in that home, economists see themselves and saw themselves as community educators who were teaching consumers how not to get ripped off. So like, you know, the, like TV news segments now, like rip off warning, things like that sort of thing. But simultaneously, they were starting to work for Pillsbury for Westinghouse, and pushing products at the same time. And so some of these, the people who did this are in the 50s, and 60s are still around, and I interviewed them. And you they did not see the contradiction that I saw, like they were in trouble, they thought that they were both, you know, doing good and making money for the corporation and, you know, serving two masters basically. And in the 50s, this really escalated, because, you know, this is the time. And I really did end up spending, like what, what was supposed to be one chapter and then became four chapters, which really did not help my time outline for the book. But I didn’t want to just say like, well, you know, the patriarchy. Right. So one of the things that was happening was women were pushed out of the workforce, to make room for all of the men who had come back from war. So there was a real need to occupy women at home. At the same time, plenty of women were working like the women’s employment rate tanked after World War Two, but then it started growing again. So plenty of women were in fact, working outside the home as well as inside the home. And you have this this fascinating confluence, where you have women who have jobs, in which they are telling other women not to have jobs, home economists and business they did not do their own housework. They weren’t cooking their own dinner for the most part, one of the one I interviewed, she said, and she did what we would now consider meal prepping. She would take some time on Sunday afternoon, and she would just make dinners for the entire week. And she would stick them in the freezer with reheating instructions. Some of what they did was you know, pushing this like happy housewife ideal. Some of it was more practical like trying to find ways to get off dinner on the table quickly. And this actually is where you get like these do now much maligned convenience foods right like TV dinners, and Bryce Rooney, Hamburger Helper. All that stuff that you know, foodies. Now, you know, we look down our noses at but you know, the point was that it was a quick way to get dinner on the table. And, you know, as in Part B, Part because the workplace did not adjust has never adjusted for working parents, right. And in part because that vision was so oppressive. You then had women working mothers in the 70s saying I’m not going to slave over dinner like my mother did. Blake, let’s grab the […] and my 12 year old can make it.
V Spehar 30:04
Exactly, yeah. So we were then it’s always there was this book that I read a long time ago. Now it’s escaping me. But the idea was like, Who does the Cooking Matters and doing the cooking really does sort of tie you to a particular task, it takes an awful lot of your emotional and physical time. There’s also the preparation to cook and to clean it up, and how that can really hold you back from career aspirations goals, because like you said, the eight hour workweek never changed, it was still nine to five, and within that time, are two meal periods.
Danielle Dreilinger 30:35
And schools have never adjusted either right to knit, Justin to the fact that most households don’t have anybody at home to pick up the kids at three.
V Spehar 30:44
Exactly. And both children don’t have anybody who’s able to get up and cook them a full balanced breakfast, which is why breakfast moved to schools, then it got cheap, we got a lot of stuff turned funny, we need to make sure that home economics is maybe coming back to the forefront again. So we’re going to take one quick break. And when we come back, I’m going to ask what is the state of Home Ec right now? What is the state of learning how to adult? And we are back with my new bestie and the author of The Secret History of home economics. Danielle, I am a little bit scared. We went on a journey to some dark places. I heard a bunch of very interesting things. And this book was so fascinating to me, we could stay on the history all day. But we do owe the listeners a little bit about like, what’s going on now and what we can do next. So what is the state of home economics and learning to adult now?
Danielle Dreilinger 31:51
So home economics is still around..
V Spehar 31:55
Just for girls.
Danielle Dreilinger 31:56
It is not for just for girls, and for that, we can think title 9.
V Spehar 32:00
Yes. Tell me about that. So what broke it up?
Danielle Dreilinger 32:03
The law that brought us women’s basketball also brought us coed home economics and shop. In fact, it was a it was a great moment in my research. When I found like an article in the Journal of home economics talking about Title Nine and I dug into the regulations, it’s in the regs, it’s nonetheless offers in the regulations, you can’t send girls to home economics and boys to shop. That said, certainly even in the 90s, at least, that was still happening in some places. But you know, at least it wasn’t legal anymore. So home economics is still around, we don’t have good numbers on how many kids are taking it. The most recent numbers is about 10 years old, and it was 3.3 million public school students per year. But that doesn’t like when I took a look myself, like, there’s a lot of like, for instance, vocational cooking classes, that is part of home economics, they may or may not be in the system listed in the system that way. And you know, Home Economics has lost so much of its power and prominence, that the people who are in charge of organizing and promoting it in all levels of the government, most of those jobs don’t exist anymore. But it is still around. Kids love it. It’s often not called Home Economics anymore. The field rebranded in the 90s in an attempt to get rid of the stigma of the term home economics. But instead what happened is they just it just made it invisible. So you know, colleges of Human Ecology, family and consumer sciences, sometimes it’s they’re called human development or human sciences. All of that is Home Economics. Life and careers, Like there might be a class called that. The or you know, the ServSafe 1 that’s a home economics class. So it’s usually in middle and high school, and sometimes is really great. And sometimes it is okay and sometimes it is not so great. And I give some, I interviewed some people in the book and I talked about some really amazing teachers who I met. Yeah, and it’s best home economics brings together the macro and the micro. So they’re looking at say the problem of hunger on all sorts of different levels, from how to cook well on a budget to donate, you know, raising money for food pantries to looking at these systemic factors that caused hunger in the first place, and attacking all of those levels. And I would say even when it’s not so amazing, I mean, I interviewed a teacher who does like E textiles, right, who really systematically thinks through like, what sort of sewing do people need, you don’t need to learn how to sew with a machine, you do know, you do need to know how to sew on a button, you need to if you’re a surgeon, you need to learn how to sew. Right. So things like that. But you know, even the classes that were sort of more, a little more traditional, like kids really enjoyed it, because they enjoy, you know, the tangibility. They tend to have a really good relationship with her home economics teachers, you know, who are trained in child development, as well as, you know, sewing, you know, as well as like pedagogy. It’s a place, it’s a classroom where you’re not tested, right? Like you’re not given standardized tests, you’re not going to destroy your GPA. It’s a low stress kind of class. It’s a place where people talk about and depending on the school system often talk about gender and sexuality. You know, I’ve been to conservative places where, you know, this was a place where you could use your, you know, your pronouns if you wanted.
Danielle Dreilinger 33:10
It’s a care space.
Danielle Dreilinger 33:56
Yeah, you know, people, I think there’s so much power to, and there’s so much power to home, right? When you use strip all of it away, like being able to cook something in the middle of the school day can just feel really comforting.
V Spehar 36:24
And food literacy is the key to ending hunger and malnutrition in so many ways, because not just feeding yourself, but it’s the folks who grew up to have jobs and decide what the dietary restrictions and regulations are going to be for people. If they’re not versed in what food is available where and how it can be prepared and how we can reduce food waste, then we’re going to continue to exasperate issues with climate change with sexism with racism, it all really does come down to how we behave and how we show up in our homes.
Danielle Dreilinger 36:54
Right, right. And that’s something a home economists have always seen, right? It’s like the home affects the world, the world affects the home. It’s a microcosm. It’s not some like a yes. If hopefully, it’s a place of security for everybody. But if you know, and if it’s not home economists want to help you with that. But it is not like sheltered away from the world. Right? It’s not separate from the world. The home is the world.
V Spehar 37:24
And even in here, you talk about abroad, how much food and home economics plays a role in war, which I don’t think is something that folks would have really expected that presidents have long said that they would win the war by proper nutrition of the troops. And this is something that we still do, although my veterans will tell you that the […] are still terrible when they could use some work. But can you just talk to me a little bit about how Home Ec has influenced policy when it comes to international conflict?
Danielle Dreilinger 37:55
Oh, wow. Yes. So dietitians have been working for the military since World War One. And actually home economists have been working to four they were working for the US Food Administration to help people ration and you know, bake wheatless breads, for instance. So they could send wheat to the troops because you know the old adage about an army traveling on its stomach. In fact, in World War One, the American troops were seen to be better, were better nourished than the other troops. And everybody knows this, they had diet, military dietitians were developing the recipes for the different branches of the military, were in the hospitals for soldiers who have been wounded to help feed them so that they could recover, to help feed refugees at the same time. And this will end this Venn transformed when the military in the 50s and 60s, entered the space race this turned into space food, I have a whole you know, there’s this whole story of home economists, dieticians and scientists creating space food, which was you know, which is far more complicated than like desiccating out some ice cream.
V Spehar 39:09
There were so many things that the home economics movement is responsible for that we just we don’t think about we just take for granted like even standard clothing sizes. That was something that came from home economics.
Danielle Dreilinger 39:21
Yeah. So the world standard women’s and children’s clothing sizes, men sizes were standardized through the military, because it’s and yeah, so these are deeply imperfect measures. The Women’s measurements as any person has known who has gone shopping in the women’s department is says no, they’re no longer in effect. They were developed in the early 40s. And they were also imperfect because they were developed by measuring only White women. They in there and the few occasions where they had to measure some women of color, the instructions were to go ahead and do it, but then throughout those measurements. Yep. But this was you know, Home economists liked standardization they wanted to, they wanted you to be able to know that when you bought a size, whatever, this is the measurements it was going to have.
V Spehar 40:13
And I know they also did great foundational research on what the chemical properties of fabrics were even and what would be safe to make textiles from?
Danielle Dreilinger 40:23
Yeah, so they did a lot of textile engineering early on. And of course, textile engineering, of course, still exists and is very important. And they developed, they were involved in a bunch of different sides in this, there was the composition of the actual fabrics. But even more often and more. So as time went on, they were involved in care instructions in marketing directions in making sure that materials were what they said they were like if something said it was 100% Well, that was actually 100% Well, they are responsible for clothing care labels, like you know, the thing that tells you to iron or not to iron. And one of the ways that home economics started declining was after World War Two, there was less funding from the government for scientific research. And businesses were funding it and what they started doing was moving home economists into the marketing team, rather than the development team. So rather than develop, you know, […] you were creating recipes of how you could use […] and the same holds with fabrics as well.
V Spehar 41:34
So Daniel, tell me what is the hope for Home Economics now? How can people support the field?
Danielle Dreilinger 41:41
So the end of my book is about how to bring back home economics because which me I’m a journalist, I’m not an advocate. I went into this saying, like, Oh, God, I’m gonna end up like having to talk like telling people to bring back Home Ec. But the thing is that everybody I talked to while I was writing this book, they said we should bring that back. Right? Even after that, even if they had just told me a story about how they flung Home Ec because they sewed the sleeve of the blouse, like together with the armhole, they would say, we should bring that back because our kids don’t know how to adult. So what I entered the field, you know, the fields exist, there is not it doesn’t have that support in Washington, or from industry that you see with male dominated vocational fields.
V Spehar 42:36
Danielle Dreilinger 42:39
Home economics was the original stem as they say, but yeah, so like, as opposed to like welding, right. And in part, this is because women, jobs are dominated by women and people of color are lower paid. And so there’s less, you know, we need tons and tons of preschool teachers, but you know, is hard to make ends meet as a preschool teacher. So what I think is that if you want to bring back home economics, go to the school board meeting, go to your local school board meeting, go to the state school board meeting and make a case for it, like get in touch with, maybe get in touch with a local teacher or the American Association for Family and Consumer Sciences. And just make the case to the school boards. Because the school day is a highly contested place. It only has so much time. And lots of different people are trying to get their priorities in there. So if you want it to be a requirement or just to be offered at all, yeah, you have to make the case to the people who are making the rules about what we do at school. And yeah, lots of states about half the states have a financial literacy requirement now for high school graduation. We haven’t talked about that much today but home economics pursuit as well personal finance family management, so that can be taught by a home economics teacher as part of a home economics class. So you know, there’s that as well you can advocate make sure that there’s a home economics option for that not just you know, the business teacher who might also just be the football coach.
V Spehar 44:18
Also that Danielle it has been such a pleasure to chat with you today. I strongly advocate people grab the book it’s a fun read. It’s an interesting read. There were so many times where I was like they did what how does Hitler factor into home economics? He does work for Hitler. Exactly a chapter six baby, you gotta get in there. This is a deep cut. We only just scratched the surface. And it is just such a fun thing to learn about American history through the lens of home economics, which is something that I’m deeply passionate about and love, and just find so entertaining and enjoyable and important to learn from so that we don’t make those mistakes over and over and over. You will find yourself as you read this book going like oh my god, we’re still doing that. Oh my god. We’re still doing that. Yeah. And we can stop it if we can help educate people and bring them into the conversation. So Daniel, thank you for writing this book and for doing that for us.
Danielle Dreilinger 45:08
Yeah. Thank you for having me.
V Spehar 45:13
Folks, go pick up the book. You can get it online, I believe. So it’s called again, The Secret History of home economics how trailblazing women harness the power of home and change the way we live. Be sure to tune in to this Tuesday’s episode where we’ll be back on the headlines talking about the things you care about most. Don’t forget to leave me a voicemail with your good news or just with feedback on like how you thought today’s episode when What do you want to hear more about, 612-293-8550 is the number. Subscribe to Lemonada Premium on Apple podcasts and follow me at under the desk news on TikTok and Instagram. I will see you on Tuesday. I hope you have a great weekend. And please pick up the book.
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