September 7, 2011

Women scientists and Home economics

This article, coincidentally by a professor of history at Michigan State University, calls for a revival of Home Economics as a response to widespread obesity. The first half of the article is about the foundations of Home Economics, which was a legitimate science, albiet one run almost entirely by women. The unequivocal founder of Home Economics was Ellen Swallow Richards (1842-1911), who began her graduate career as a chemist, coined the english version of "ecology" (based on Haekel's Oekologie), studied and taught at MIT, and was critical to the formation of no less than half a dozen applied science fields, such as sanitary science, nutrition science, domestic science, and human ecology.

Not coincidentally, I wrote a paper on Ellen Swallow Richards last fall and, dear reader, I'm happy to provide it to you. I was really interested in Richards' theories human-environmental interactions, so I mostly focused on that. But some of my main points will interest environmental, women's studies, and history of science scholars:
  • Ernst Haeckel introduces Oekologie (ecology) in 1866, defining it as:
“knowledge concerning the economy of nature—the investigation of the total relations of the animal both to its inorganic and its organic environment… the study of all those complex interrelations referred to by Darwin as the conditions of the struggle for existence.” (Foster, 2000:195)
  • Richards envisions ecology as the science of the total environment (human and non-human, including the built environment), introducing it to America in 1892.
  • As the "organismal" (and non-human) definition of ecology prevailed in the male-dominated sciences, Richards’ tries to re-brand her vision of ecology as domestic science, home economics, human ecology, and "euthenics"- as opposed to eugenics- as "the science of the controllable environment."
  • Richards situates women as guardians of the home environment, emphasizing safety, efficiency, education and relief from drudgery. Rather than seeking to impose more housework on women, Richards saw scientific home economics as empowering.
Some scholars recognize Ellen Swallow Richards as a proto-feminist, or even ecofeminist. Philosopher of science Sandra Harding writes, "Might our understanding of nature and social life be different if the people who discovered the laws of nature were the same ones who cleaned up after them?” (Harding, 2001:27) Unfortunately, I believe that many of Richards' theories on the environment disappeared after her death. Although she was a prominent chemist at the time, even appearing in books such as American Men of Science, she was marginalized because of her gender and her progressive views on human-environment interactions. Her version of Home Economics was watered-down significantly over the next century. Nonetheless, I cautiously applaud the call for a reinvigoration of Home Economics- perhaps one that recognizes the role of men and women in the household.

This blog is cross-posted at my other, less updated blog, Her Story of Science. References available in my paper, linked above.

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