Athens, Ga. – As part of an effort to rediscover the roots of home economics and explore its impact on modern society, professors in the fields of family and consumer sciences, history and women’s studies will gather at the University of Georgia in late February for a two-day conference titled “Home Economics: Classroom, Corporate and Cultural Interpretations Revisited.” Or, as a save-the-date card declares more succinctly: “Home Economics. It’s Cool Again.”
A Sept. 6 letter to the editor of The New York Times praises an essay on home economics, stating that modern home economics classes should include “what to expect in the world of college loans and grants, your first bills, managing personal health care, budgeting, taxes, job application strategies (including interview etiquette), civic responsibilities and resources and even some basic parenting skills.”
In other words, the same topics—finances, nutrition, child development and personal responsibility—are needed that were taught to young women as far back as the 1890s. “Recent writings about the field have given a lot of attention to its positive aspects,” said Sharon Y. Nickols, the Janette Barber Professor of Housing and Consumer Economics in the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences.
“In the ’60s and ’70s, the field was seen through a lens that tended to equate anything related to the home as trapping women in constraining roles,” she said. “The new literature examines the role home economics played in providing women access to college educations and the professionalism of a variety of fields.”
Nickols and her colleagues hope to attract a broad range of attendees to the conference including students and professionals in the fields of history, women’s studies, family and consumer sciences, journalism and education.
“It’s clear when you read the popular media, and even the Journal of the American Medical Association, that the concepts taught in family and consumer sciences were valuable both for teaching life skills and for the role they can play in strengthening academics,” Nickols said. “It’s become accepted that students learn in different ways. Presenting math or science concepts as a part of determining measurements for sewing garments or as part of nutrition education is now seen as among progressive teaching techniques.”
Unfortunately, she said, the assumption that the skills taught in home economics were just for homemaking and not grounded in academic disciplines-as well as the view that modern conveniences meant people no longer needed to know how to prepare meals or make good consumer decisions-played into its marginalization at the secondary level.
Among the presentations scheduled for the conference is one by Peggy Meszaros, a professor of human development at Virginia Tech, who is the principal investigator on a project in Appalachia designed to encourage young women to study math and science in high school and, ultimately, in college.
“Ellen Swallow Richards, who is considered a founder of home economics, was a chemist who believed that issues related to the household could be analyzed with the sciences,” Nickols said. “Dr. Meszaros will be comparing the challenges faced by Ellen Richards with those faced by young women today in regards to pursuing careers in the math, science and technology fields.”
Other speakers will explore the role home economics played in the expansion of educational and professional opportunities for African-American women as well as the impact of racism and segregation on these opportunities.
While home economics has played a pivotal role in improving the lives of individuals and families, Nickols and her conference colleagues will also address some of the field’s failings, including its struggle to settle on a name (by the 1990s there were more than 35 variations that included some combination of the words human, family, consumer, science, development and ecology) and how the loss of its comprehensive focus on improving the lives of individual families and larger society has detracted from the field.
However, rather than giving up on the field, Nickols and the other conference organizers see the examination of home economics’ history as a way of identifying its essential role in the future.
Megan Elias, a history professor at City University of New York, conference speaker and author of “Stir It Up: Home Economics in American Culture,” maintains that while the current focus on America’s obesity epidemic serves as a flashpoint for the reinstitution of nutrition education, it misses the essentialness of the “holistic connections home economics has always made between nutrition and family budgets and relationships,” she said.
Registration for the conference is $105, with a discounted fee of $45 for students. To register or for more information, see http://fcs.uga.edu/college/home_economics_revisited.html. The conference will be held Feb. 27-28.