I pulled my cake out of the oven and looked at it with disgust; Instead of a light and fluffy pastry, it had the consistency of a hockey puck. Looking back over the recipe, my mistake was realized: I forgot to add baking soda! “As a STEM student, you should have known better!” my mom joked. And although I had never thought about it before, she was right. Sodium bicarbonate reacts with acidic ingredients like milk or lemon juice to form CO2, which makes the dough rise. Baking is a science where chemical reactions occur just like they do in my lab test tubes on campus.
The academic sciences and domestic life have been historically viewed as separate spheres, with further distinction created by the sex that inhabits them: men in the lecture hall and at the lab bench, women in the kitchen. But for pioneering women scientists who had to balance their careers with the responsibilities of being wives and mothers, the world of the home and the world of the lab were closely intertwined. Marie Curie, one month after discovering a new element, made a careful note on the making of a large batch of gooseberry jelly in the margin of her cookbook, mirroring the detailed observations she wrote about her radioactivity experiments. But could the details of domestic life itself be a science? What if the kitchen is a chemical laboratory, the nursery a place to study child developmental psychology, and the laundry room a battleground against germs and disease? Home economics, the study of this “domestic science,” has long been bemoaned as a pink-collar ghetto, dismissed as what girls study in college to learn how to iron clothes and make the perfect white sauce. Critics only see the field’s shortcomings, however, without appreciating its progressive origins. For home economics is an example of women scientists carving a place for themselves in a male-dominated space, a field created by women for women. It displays how the dual experiences of women at home and in careers allowed them to make a unique contribution to science.
The strategy of Ellen Swallow Richards, the founder of home economics, was to “make a place for herself (and other women) by capitalizing on woman’s traditional role.” Richards earned her B.A. from Vassar College in 1870 and was accepted as MIT’s first female student the same year. To bring more women into the university, “…she volunteered her services and about $1,000 annually to the “Woman’s Laboratory” there, which she induced philanthropic Bostonians to support.” Most of the research being done at the laboratory was on sanitation and nutrition, both burgeoning fields but viewed as unintimidating to male faculty, especially after Richards advertised them as being valuable to the homemaker. From Richard’s curriculum was borne the subject termed “home economics.” Defined in the Lake Placid Conference Proceedings of 1902, home economics was “The study of the laws, conditions, principles, and ideals which are concerned on the one hand with man’s immediate physical environment and on the other hand with his nature as a social being.” This definition perhaps showcases how women scientists, who were already skilled in jumping between their career and home lives, were able to create a field that progressively combined empirical observation and experimentation with the social problems of the day, emphasizing the intersection between the natural and social sciences.
The connection that home economics taught resulted in both important scientific discoveries and massive societal reform. In the area of nutrition, home economists created the seven food groups, wrote recipes for food manufacturers, and educated the public about healthy eating, including how to be frugal but health-conscious food consumers during World War II. Home economics classes in 1910 pioneered the first school lunch program. In the area of textiles, they invented clothing-care instruction labels, applying scientific principles so that clothing could last longer and be cleaned most effectively. Home economists made contributions to public health as well by teaching how one can combat deadly diseases like tuberculosis and typhoid in the home through proper sanitation techniques. According to Nancy Tomes, “Bacteriology figured prominently in the early discipline’s teachings about a wide range of topics, including home sanitation, interior decoration, and food preparation.” Germ theory had gained widespread acceptance in the scientific community by the late 1800s, but home economics taught the practical applications of this ground-breaking concept. One of the most prominent inventions from women trained as home economists was the creation of “space food,” freeze-dried meals eaten by the first astronauts. Home economics was a pragmatic science; its students used knowledge of chemistry and biology to find practical solutions to both problems in both everyday life as well as the peculiar issues created by space travel.
But by the 1950s, the field had developed a bad reputation in the eyes of Second Wave feminists like Betty Friedan, who viewed it as merely “glorified housekeeping” which oppressed women instead of empowered them and limited their opportunities in other subjects.
It is true that the field had become profoundly feminized by 1900 and has remained so ever since. In this sense, it may demonstrate what Margaret Rossiter describes as “…a second kind of occupational sex segregation: besides the hierarchical form…where women were employed as assistants to higher-ranking persons, there was a territorial kind, where women did all the work in a specific, highly sex-typed, field or location.” Rossiter posits that the success of home economics as a field of study and its institution in college campuses across the country only served to increase this sexual segregation. “Rather than leading to the acceptance of women in other kinds of scientific work, as the pioneers had expected, their success in “women’s work” merely consigned their followers to segregated employment.”
It is difficult to draw conclusions about how opportunities for women in science would have been different without home economics. One thing is for sure: society would have suffered if the field had never existed. Home economics was one of the first fields that tried to bridge the gap between academic science and its social applications. It was one of the first studies that recognized the importance of educating the public about scientific practice, as well as the idea that scientific and public health literacy begins in the home. Without the unique perspective provided by this women-founded and women-run pursuit, it may have taken longer for these concepts to take hold. And because of home economics’ multifaceted nature, a plethora of jobs for women were created; not always in science, but as teachers, social workers, managers in the public sector, nutrition advisors, etc. One of Betty Friedan’s most famous quotes from her book The Feminine Mystique says that: “The only way for a woman, as for a man, to find herself, to know herself as a person, is by creative work of her own.” And home economics, although not flawless, was in fact women creating something for themselves, a field of their own, that greatly benefitted generations of women and the society they lived in.
Marilyn Fisher is a junior Biology major with a not-too-secret obsession with anything “retro”. In her spare time, she loves to watch classic movies (especially ones about health and medicine!) and practice her Mid-Atlantic accent. Until her next post, “Here’s looking at you, kid!”
 Susan Quinn, Marie Curie: A Life (Boston: De Capo Press, 1995), 129.
 Margaret W. Rossiter, Woman Scientists in America: Struggles and Strategies to 1940 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), 68.
 Rossiter, 68.
 Patricia J. Thompson, “Beyond Gender: Equity Issues for Home Economics Education,” Theory Into Practice 25, no. 4 (1986): 279.
 Virginia Postrel, “Much More Than Muffins: The Women Scientists Who Invented Home Ec,” The New York Times Online, 4 May 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/04/books/review/secret-history-of-home-economics-danielle-dreilinger.html
 Nancy Tomes, “Spreading The Germ Theory: Sanitary Science and Home Economics, 1880-1930,” in Rethinking Home Economics, ed. Sarah Stage and Virginia B. Vincenti (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997), 34.
 Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York City: W.W. Norton and Company, 1963).
 Rossiter, 395.
 Rossiter, 395-396.
 Susan Saidenberg, “Half a Century After the Feminine Mystique,” The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, 2 February 2016, https://www.gilderlehrman.org/news/half-century-after-feminine-mystique.