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The surprising, often fiercely feminist, always fascinating, yet barely known, history of home economics.
The term “home economics” may conjure traumatic memories of lopsided hand-sewn pillows or sunken muffins. But common conception obscures the story of the revolutionary science of better living. The field exploded opportunities for women in the twentieth century by reducing domestic work and providing jobs as professors, engineers, chemists, and business-people. And it has something to teach us today.
In the surprising, often fiercely feminist and always fascinating The Secret History of Home Economics, Danielle Dreilinger traces the field’s history from Black colleges to Eleanor Roosevelt to Okinawa, from a Betty Crocker brigade to DIY techies. These women—and they were mostly women—became chemists and marketers, studied nutrition, health, and exercise, tested parachutes, created astronaut food, and took bold steps in childhood development and education.
Home economics followed the currents of American culture even as it shaped them. Dreilinger brings forward the racism within the movement along with the strides taken by women of color who were influential leaders and innovators. She also looks at the personal lives of home economics’ women, as they chose to be single, share lives with other women, or try for egalitarian marriages.
This groundbreaking and engaging history restores a denigrated subject to its rightful importance, as it reminds us that everyone should learn how to cook a meal, balance their account, and fight for a better world.
About the Author: Danielle Dreilinger is a former New Orleans Times-Picayune education reporter and a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow. She also wrote for the Boston Globe and worked at the Boston NPR station WGBH.
"A fresh contribution to women’s history and a resurrection of contributions too often overlooked." - Kirkus Reviews
"I grew up in the 1960s when Home Economics was required for all ninth-grade girls and meant two things: cooking and sewing. We baked cookies and served them on silver trays to the boys in Wood Shop. We sewed wraparound skirts. Some of us complained, a lot. Danielle Dreilinger’s The Secret History of Home Economics is a revelation. That secret history is rich with gender and race issues, and opened the eyes of this former home ec student. It will open yours too." - Ann Hood, author of The Knitting Circle
"A thorough, delightful, inspiring history of heroines whose stories Dreilinger gloriously rescues from the compost heap of history." - Gustavo Arellano, author of Taco USA
"A pathbreaking book that unearths and presents part of the 'hidden' history of economics, in this case as practiced largely by women, and often black women at that. Think of it as the science and craft of Beckerian household production but with a managerial emphasis. If you like books on paths not taken, this one is for you." - Tyler Cowen
"A fascinating work of history, extensively researched, on a subject long ignored: how home economics helped shaped American life. Full of delicious anecdotes, The Secret History of Home Economics makes the case that home ec, often maligned and misunderstood, always provided students regardless of gender with skills that make life better, and should be revived." - Nancy Jo Sales, author of American Girls
"This book tells the unexpected story of how home economics began as an intellectual haven for smart women—Black as well as white—who were otherwise blocked from studying science, but ended up as a field less rigorous and more conforming. Black women were at the forefront of this history, and their role is a revelation. Dreilinger makes a convincing case for bringing back the skills that home economics alone could teach." - Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health, emerita, at NYU and author of Let’s Ask Marion