Whatever stereotypes we associate with the profession of home economics, Danielle Dreilinger is here to assure us that everything we think we know is wrong. As she explicates in her thoroughly entertaining book, The Secret History of Home Economics: How Trailblazing Women Harnessed the Power of Home and Changed the Way We Live, home economics in the United States is much more complex than we might have imagined.
Since the time of Catharine Beecher, who published A Treatise on Domestic Economy in 1841, home economists have not simply reacted to societal changes and trends but have helped shape them. For starters, we have home economists to thank for things like food groups, the designation of a federal poverty level and the consumer protection movement. Home economics also opened doors for some women, including women of color, to enter careers in science that may have otherwise been closed to them.
As a journalist, Dreilinger knows the power of storytelling and makes the women from this history come to life. For example, she mines oral histories to shed light on the challenges Dr. Flemmie Kittrell faced as an African American nutritionist visiting South Africa in 1967. Dreilinger also provides overall historical context, delineating the marginalization of Black women in the home economics field.
As for the role of home economics in the 21st century, Dreilinger says the most common response she received when telling others about writing this book was, “We should bring that back.” Dreilinger closes with several suggestions for doing just that, including diversifying the profession to include more people of color and teaching home economics as an interdisciplinary field that explores the connection between our homes and the world, “with an eye to addressing the root causes of problems such as hunger, homelessness, isolation, and environmental devastation.”
Dreilinger, who completed her book during the COVID-19 pandemic, correctly notes that people have been thinking about the meaning of home and how homes work more than ever before. As we look toward the future, it’s always good to consider where we’ve been, and The Secret History of Home Economics helps us do that.