The Feminist Case for Home Economics
Home Economics, renamed Family and Consumer Sciences in 1994, had its heyday in the mid-1900s. It was taught in almost all schools and offered as a major in college. Unfortunately, despite being conceived as a way to validate the work that stay-at-home mothers (or homemakers) were doing, it was vilified as a degree in glorified housekeeping and began to disappear towards the turn of the century. Today, while as many as 80% of high school students (including boys and girls) are enrolled in Home Ec. classes, the completion of such classes has declined 38% nationwide.
My mandatory Home Ec. classes served me well. They taught my classmates and me useful skills like how to use a sewing machine, embroider, and cook. They have also drawn more scrutiny than any other class I’ve taken during my college career. Somehow a course on “Mafia Movies” is deemed more practical and worthy of my time than learning to care for my home, future family, and, most importantly, myself.
Despite the disparaging hullaballoo, I believe that Home Ec. should be a mandatory class for all middle and/or high school students. I don’t think such classes are necessary in order to keep the art of homemaking alive, but rather because Home Ec fosters self-sufficiency and can actually support a feminist agenda.
I have friends, both male and female, who occasionally turn to me for cooking advice. This might be because I have a food blog, but rather than asking for insight on a cool new technique, the most frequently asked question are basic ones, like “How do you cook rice?” Turns out (based on an unscientific polling of my friends) having a college degree does not mean that you have any idea how to cook, clean, or do your laundry – basic elements of being self-sufficient.
Furthermore, if we don’t inject our educational system with a good dose of practical knowledge, we can’t expect to solve major societal issues, like the obesity epidemic. First Lady Michelle Obama and many scientific experts agree that a more general rise in unhealthy behavior could be linked to the fact that we don’t know how to feed ourselves properly. Bolstering or reinstating classes that don’t just teach nutrition, but actually empower young people to tie on an apron, pick up a whisk, and cook could go a long way in shifting how the next generation will treat their bodies.
But Home Ec. classes don’t just address practical empowerment, but also empowerment on a broader societal level. Despite the author of the 1920 book Selling Mrs. Consumer, Christine Frederick’s, argument that “our greatest enemy is the woman with a career” women are a force to be reckoned with in corporate America. Women are, at a slow but ever-increasing rate, gaining a major foothold in the upper echelons of business. With these gains, though, comes a strain on ‘traditional’ division of labor, which necessitates either a more egalitarian approach to domesticity.
In order to reach true gender equality, the “second shift” – or the domestic work working women do in addition to their paid labor, which sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild explored in her groundbreaking book of the same name -- has to either be eliminated or must include men. Men are more frequently than ever before taking on a ‘hands-on’ parenting role, from changing diapers to helping in the kitchen. But they might not be prepared to do so: With a shortage of strong male role models and a lack of education on how to manage a family and a home, many men are set up for failure. Many men don’t flounder because their gender inherently impairs them from housework, but rather because they were never taught basic skills. A highlight of one of my middle school Home Economics classes was watching enormous football players compete for who could produce the smoothest stitch for a pillow-making project. While these boys may never have touched a sewing machine since, the stigma of sewing being “women’s work” was debunked for them and they’re now prepared should the opportunity arise.
Ultimately, it’s more important than ever that young women and men today know how to take care of our families, our homes, our personal finances, and ourselves. We can all fantasize about having the Sheryl Sandberg ideal with a supportive partner, understanding job, and an army of nannies. But the reality is that most people aren’t worrying about being able to “Lean In”: they’re struggling just to stay afloat. In order to best prepare students for life, we have to teach life skills along with geometry, physics, and history. Knowing how to make rice will serve you much better in times of need than calculus would.
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