By Courtney E. Martin
Thursday, May 12, 2005
Home economics is no longer just about failed junior-high sewing projects. Now it's a college discipline called family and consumer sciences and many of its students are graduating this month. Second in a series of eight on women and education.
(WOMENSENEWS)--Anna Ingram's big eyes get even bigger when she explains some of the topics she's explored while at Colorado State University.
"I've learned about family structure, the obesity epidemic in America, malnutrition worldwide and credit card debt."
No, the 20-year-old is not a policy wonk or an aspiring non-profit CEO. She is the modern day equivalent of a home economics major.
If you still associate "home ec" with failed junior high sewing projects and co-eds in sweater sets, think again.
Home economics has expanded and evolved. This May, students who either major or minor in family consumer sciences--most of them female--will graduate from colleges in every state.
Classes in cooking and child-rearing--called nutritional sciences and human development--are still on their transcripts. But there are also courses such as "family and the law," the "economics of gender" and the "politics of consumerism" that make legal and political connections to domestic life.
The discipline mainly attracts young women, but not exclusively. In the 1999-2000 school year, 86 percent of the country's 18,000 FCS were female, according to the Washington-based National Center for Education Statistics.
With its focus on the nexus between home and community, some say these courses have the potential to serve as the incubator for the next wave of feminism. Others, however, say the programs are a throwback to home economics, dressed up for this decade.
"Talking about, and more importantly, thinking about the modern family is incredibly important," says Robin Stern, a psychologist and professor at Columbia University's Teachers College in New York. "If FCS can provide a place for women to find a strong feminist voice as to what they want their families to look like, then that's profound. But honestly, I wonder how much change there really is within the discipline."
The roots of home economics go back to the early 1900s with the Lake Placid Conferences, a diverse gathering of men and women who, according to the Web site of the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences, a trade group for the discipline based in Alexandria, Va., had the common concern of "applying scientific principles to the management of the household."
Marian Talbot, a leader of the conference, is quoted on the site as saying that "men and women are alike concerned in understanding the processes, activities, obligations and opportunities which make the home and family effective parts of the social fabric."
At a time when women couldn't vote, much less own property, Talbot was nothing short of a visionary.
But as the actual programs took shape in schools across the country, they seemed to be neatly tracking women into cooking and cleaning while male counterparts got to carve wood and meld metal in shop class.
At the university-level, home economics courses were limited to schools with the highest number of female students, especially in rural areas.
The decline of home economics began in the 1970s as the women's rights movement galvanized young women to get out of the kitchen and break into male-dominated schools and professions. By the 1980s, the image of home economics, based on the premise of bread-baking mother and a bread-winning father, seemed downright quaint.
In the mid-1990s, however, a combination of 4-H stalwarts and new wave nutritionists--buoyed by the success of such things as Martha Stewart Living magazine and cooking shows on TV--began rallying behind a home-economics comeback.
Not only could the field continue to teach students about cooking and cleaning, it could also tackle an increasingly complex consumer world with double-income family politics.
In 1994, the National Task Force on Unity and Identity, a group of individuals representing multiple perspectives within the discipline, changed the name of home economics to family and consumer sciences They established a theme: "Empowering Individuals-Strengthening Families-Enabling Communities."
At the same time, the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences convened a board of directors to "establish a forward looking framework," that included analyzing the potential effects of an aging population, genetically-modified foods and the declining popularity of marriage.
The association claims energy conservation in housing design, Head Start and programs to support families as women took their place in the work force all as ideas originally conceived by FCS-trained intellectuals.
Despite these achievements, Kate Levitt, communications-gender scholar at the University of California at San Diego, questions the discipline's intellectual and political force.
"It seems to me that FCS champions the paradox of the American Dream, promoting happiness through a clean, orderly home and lifestyle, rather than functioning as an academic discipline that contributes to our understandings of the world in which we live."
Many FCS majors express a desire to be stay-at-home moms or teach other women about domestic responsibilities or family planning through Cooperative Extension, federally-funded programs in many agriculturally-based communities aimed to educate and support its citizens, much like a community center in urban cities.
Others are breaking the mold. Many have already or will join the American Association of Family Consumer Sciences, whose 15,000 members have taken on jobs ranging from Washington lobbyist to financial planner to marketing executive.
Ingram isn't interested in teaching or raising children, at least not in the near future.
She dreams of starting her own business to take the booming elderly population on travel adventures. After watching her grandmother struggle with the sudden loss of her husband, she also is thinking about starting a nonprofit organization that counsels new widows on financial planning.
"The discipline addresses really basic things that involve all of us; family, aging, food," Ingram says. "Sure it is important that we help solve the political crisis in Haiti or study semiotics, but what are you going to do if your community is falling apart?"
Courtney E. Martin is a freelancer writer, teacher, and filmmaker living in Brooklyn. She is currently working on a book on the drive for perfection among young women (Simon and Schuster, fall 2006).
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