Dust up. Credit: Schweigmann/United Archives via Getty

May 13, 2021   6 mins

Doing feminism can feel like doing the dusting. The sexism piles up, coating surfaces, hovering in the air. You run a cloth around, but the relief is only temporary. There will always be more of it soon. Or it’s like doing the dishes, or cooking dinner, or keeping up with laundry — all those tasks that need to be done again and again and again in the daily round of staying afloat.

Helpfully, feminism has a word for this kind of unpaid, unending work: it’s called reproductive labour, in contrast with the productive labour that generates goods or services in exchange for wages, and if you didn’t know that, you’ve demonstrated exactly what I mean about feminism being like dusting. Most movements have an institutional memory, a sense of where they’ve come from to underpin where they’re going. Feminism has the willed obliteration of its history.

A recent column in the New Statesman, for example, bemoaned the timidity of contemporary feminists. The author wanted to talk about the ills of BDSM and plastic surgery, but, she wrote, that urge put her in “strange territory” — because it aligned her with arguments made by bad old “dogmatic and exclusionary” second wavers. The cultural horror of allying with older women wasn’t because of sexism: it was the older women’s fault. Yes, the author conceded, they may have had some good points, but they weren’t very nice, so she couldn’t be expected to read them. “I can understand why a young person would observe that landscape and wonder why they would want to be a part of it, which makes me all the angrier,” she wrote. Feminism cannot have a history, because it will always be sullied and devalued by the women who make it.

It seems exasperatingly obvious that you cannot build on the past while repudiating it (and if nothing else, being angry at older women for failing to present themselves more ingratiatingly is a strange way to critique feminine aesthetics.) But then I read Danielle Dreilinger’s new book The Secret History of Home Economics and realised I’m guilty of the same ignorance. Did home economics even have a history? Surely it just sort of happened, like the dusting seemed to “just sort of happen” when I lived with my mum.

For me, at school in the nineties, home ec classes stood for everything I didn’t want to be. This was training for a life I had no intention of leading. The thought of running a household bored me — worse, it demeaned me. Domesticity was unimportant stuff for unimportant people, and if it had been pointed out that the “unimportant people” in this formulation were implicitly female, I would only have replied that I did not see myself as female. I saw myself as human. “Humans” didn’t do housework: women did.

My grandmother found my determined slatternliness shocking. When she was at school, she told me, girls were taught to sew and bake so they would be ready to keep a house, and this of course was precisely why I despised the whole subject: if I took home ec seriously, I’d be acceding to my part in the great drudge. What I didn’t know (but do now, thanks to Dreilinger) is that my grandmother and I were both wrong. Home economics never was intended to reduce women to domesticity; it was intended to elevate them.

Dreilinger’s account is US-centric, and begins with Catharine Beecher (sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe) and her programme of education for girls, which she summed up in the 1841 book A Treatise on Domestic Economy. While Beecher never challenged the idea that the home was women’s proper sphere, she argued forcefully for its importance: “It wasn’t just about how to care for a house. It was about the power of women to glue together a fragile society.”

Such a vital task could not be left to amateurs. There would have to be training, delivered by paid experts. “No one seemed to notice,” writes Dreilinger, “that while seeming to celebrate the home as a sanctuary, Beecher politicized and professionalized it.” Domestic economy was both an unassailably proper subject for girls to be educated in, and a potential career for women.

Under the auspices of home ec, women ran labs, entered universities, wrote policy, studied engineering, researched child development with actual “practice babies” (much sought after for subsequent adoption) andserved the military. Not everyone in the discipline embraced this capacity for liberation. At the 1902 Lake Placid conference on domestic economy (organised by Annie Dewey, wife of Melvil, the creator of the decimal system), one attendee declared: “Heaven forbid that the threatened emancipation of women should ever make it necessary for men to manage.” But another announced: “The final test of the teacher of home economics is freedom.”

This was true in a very literal way. Every chore rationalised, every bit of labour saved, meant a lighter burden for women. Domestic economist Louisan Mamer became an evangelist for home electrification in the 1930s. “The average farm woman worked sixty-four to seventy-seven hours a week, not counting the farm jobs,” explains Dreilinger. “Doing everything by hand the hard way and bearing a lot of children was killing women at an early age, Mamer thought.” Mamer’s “Electric Circus” — a touring canvas tent showcasing electrical goods — convinced rural communities to join the grid, and cut the toll on women.

Home economics could be morally uplifting too. Margaret Washington, wife of the black educationalist Booker T Washington, began teaching domestic economy at the Tuskegee Institute in the 1890s. Her household manual, Work for the Colored Women of the South, was a manifesto for self-improvement: “By changing personal habits, women could erase the traces of slavery from the body and house.”

This might be criticised as “respectability politics”, placing the onus on black families to earn their dignity rather than demanding it as their due (it’s the same fraught line between identity, culture and class in America that critics Margot Jefferson and Thomas Chatterton Williams have both written about in recent memoirs). Complicated as it is, however, it beats the Deweys’ downright racism. They ran a resort intended to demonstrate the height of domestic science, from which African Americans and Jews were banned, and Annie promoted home ec as a tool for the eugenics movement.

Dreilinger is frank about home economics’ mixed record on race as well as its sexism. It provided a professional path for black women, but (along with much of American life) it was often segregated, with black women hived off into separate organisations and denied affiliation to the major professional body. Those like the Deweys were content for it to stay that way. It was also used to impose pseudo-scientific disapproval on any deviations from WASP normality. One home economics teacher writing in 1929 portrayed the tortilla as a gateway to criminality. The “Mexican child”, left hungry by his inadequate lunch, grows lazy and resorts to stealing, she explained: “Thus the initial step in a life of thieving is taken.” The Jewish diet was attacked for its excess of pickles.

But crucially, and unlike many of her contemporaries, Dreilinger does not dismiss the whole subject over some of its practitioners’ lapses, and what emerges is a story of ingenuity, compromise and ambition. Where there are hypocrisies (as in the “radio housewives” of the early twentieth century, who made a living by propagandising the joys of not making a living — effectively proto-mummybloggers), she’s interested in teasing out the reasons for them rather than damning anyone as a liar.

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By the end, Dreilinger’s history amounts to a manifesto for the revival of home economics for everyone. It feels timely: as she points out, lockdown has exposed the housework gap, with women breaking under the strain of running the home while working from it, while men broadly hold themselves apart from the domestic. Unpaid does not mean valueless, and efforts to calculate the worth of household work show an economy balanced on female backs.

The Daily Mail, for example, recently reported with some surprise that delaying women’s retirement had not saved the state money. Whatever was trimmed off the pension bill, it was more than made up for by the added cost of social care for elderly relatives who would previously have been looked after for free by their daughters and daughters-in-law. If only the government had asked a home economist first. Katrine Marçal’s Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?, published in English in 2016, was a revelation to me for its clear explanation of reproductive labour and its value, but I can see it now as an extension of home economics.

The dust should not be allowed to settle too fast over this part of women’s history. Partly it deserves recognition because, as Dreilinger shows, it’s full of bold and unconventional women with rousingly pragmatic natures; partly because there’s always room for more recognition that housework is work. (Strangely, this slogan has never caught on in the same way as “sex work is work”: apparently it is revolutionary to treat women as service portals for penises but embarrassing to talk about the vast expropriation of women’s labour.)

My life did, of course, end up involving domesticity, and I still hate the drudge, but then so did most of the women who developed home economics. “Keeping a spotless house 
 was like putting pearls on a string with no knot at the end,” according to Lilian Gilbreth, who turned her instinct for efficiency to the home when she was frozen out of an engineering career in the 1920s. Like its inventors, a reborn home ec syllabus could be the model of practical radicalism that we need; it’s the science of seeing the unseen, valuing the unvalued, questioning the everyday.

Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.