New Book Reviews The Evolution Of Home Economics

September 29, 1997

ITHACA, N.Y. -- Historically, home economics has been dismissed as a conspiracy to keep women in the kitchen, says a new book that takes a fresh look at home economics and how race, class, gender, politics and professionalism have influenced women's options and home economics historically.

"Home economics constitutes a classic case of the interplay of politics and domesticity in women's history," writes Sarah Stage, professor and chair of women's studies at Arizona State University-West, who co-edited the book Rethinking Home Economics: Women and the History of a Profession (Cornell University Press, 1997) with Virginia B. Vincenti, professor of family and consumer sciences at the University of Wyoming.

"Women, largely denied employment in male professions, developed parallel tracks to careers and sought to upgrade, standardize and professionalize the fields in which they worked in an attempt to be competitive for jobs and resources and to gain legitimacy. The essays in this volume . . . seek to get beyond judgments on whether home economics 'helped' or 'hurt' women and to ask instead how and why it developed as it did and what we can learn from the successes and failures of these pioneering women professionals."

The new book brings together the perspectives of women's historians, home economics educators and home economists. Francille M. Firebaugh, dean of the New York State College of Human Ecology at Cornell, and Joan Jacobs Brumberg, professor of history and of human development at Cornell, wrote the book's preface and organized the 1991 Cornell conference "Rethinking Women and Home Economics in the 20th Century," upon which the essays are based.

Other contributors from Cornell include Margaret Rossiter, the Marie Underhill Noll Professor of the History of Science at Cornell, writing on men moving into home economics in higher education; Ronald Kline, associate professor of the history of technology, addressing the role of home economists in rural electrification from 1925 to 1950; and Hazel Reed, professor emerita and former extension agent offering personal reminiscences. Brumberg also wrote an essay on how home economics has been portrayed in instructional films.

The essays in the book also discuss other facets of home economics, including disease prevention, parenting, home economics education, careers in hospitals and nutrition, test kitchens and product development, race, class and ethnicity, and the future of home economics.

Publication of the book was supported, in part, by a grant from the College of Human Ecology.

Cornell University

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