Reflections on Home Economics

In the gender-segregated early 1960s, high school required home economics class for girls and shop class for boys. Neither was an academic class. They required making things: sewing, cooking, carpentry, metal work, and the like. Inferior to academic learning, I supposed, but perhaps of value to those on a vocational track, which also included elective ag and typing classes. 

I didn’t like home ec. By junior high, I had been cooking for years. “Learning” how to fry eggs or bake cookies was neither challenging nor interesting. Sewing, however, proved to be a challenge that I could not master. 

Oh, I could sew. I just couldn’t sew to the rules and requirements of that class. The green flowered pattern of that skirt and the lovely blue and green abstract of the empire-waist dress remain imprinted on my mind. I wore both of them, and they looked just fine, but they did not measure up to the standards of home ec class.

On the day that  I got a C minus or D for my sewing grade, I got off the school bus in the afternoon and cried all the way up the driveway. Not so much for the grade, as for the feeling that I had let down my favorite aunt, and perhaps disgraced her in the eyes of her colleagues. Aunty Helen, you see, was a home economics teacher, with a Master’s Degree in Home Economics Education and on her way to a PhD. 

She laughed when I told her about it, years (and many skirts, dresses, nightgowns, and other garments) later. 

Home economics, properly understood, she told me, was about economics, not about how to sew or cook. The family is the basic economic unit of society. To understand economics at all, you must begin at home. 

Walking along railroad tracks in St. Paul in the 1980s, we sparred over our differing philosophies of education. By then, she was teaching at the University of Minnesota and working for the state vocational and technical education system. and I was a young lawyer. Our arguments focused on the competing values of vocational education and liberal education. She went on to become deputy director of the Minnesota Technical Institute System (circa 1989), interim state director for vocational and technical education (circa 1990), and retired in 1998 as Vice-Chancellor for Vocational Education for the State of Minnesota. 

Searching the internet for references to anything that Aunty Helen might have written, I found a citation in the September/October 1979 issue of Illinois Teacher. The citation is a footnote in an article by Bessie Hackett, “Review and Evaluation of Consumer and Homemaking Education Programs.”  It cites a 1977 publication by Helen Henrie and Joan R. Wilkosz for the Minneapolis Public Schools, title “Home Economics Goals and Objectives,” which I have not been able to locate. The Hackett article says:

“Henrie identified some criteria, adapted here as guidelines, which could be helpful in deciding the problem areas around which to organize a curriculum for home and family resource management. 

“1. The problem areas relate to the basic functions which families and individuals must 

fulfill for survival. 

“2. The problem areas are ones generally experienced in home and family living in the 

current society. 

“3. The problem areas are ones which can have significant effects on family members. 

“4. The problem areas are ones which appear to be experienced by families from generation to generation.”

This summary points to a vision of home economics that is far broader than the cooking and sewing class that I endured in high school. 

Years after Aunty Helen’s far-too-early death, I found her “Family Economic Autobiography,” which appears to have been written in the early 1960s, probably while she was getting her M.A. This paper focuses on the entire economic life of her family of origin, again giving a broad view of home/family economics. This vision sees far beyond what she calls “the usual household tasks,” which were the sole focus of my high school home economics class. 

In this paper, she notes the participation of her mother in the economic life of the family: 

“The main sources of income were from the farm and livestock. These were supplemented by the sale of wood which my father cut and by the sale of fur from animals which he trapped. My mother contributed her labor to the enterprises through the usual household tasks and in addition helped with milking, care of chickens and some field work. …

“The decision making process evident throughout the history of my family is one in which the wishes of my father have predominated in areas of major expenditure No decision to spend any sizeable sum of money or invest in a particular manner has bene made without thinking it through with my mother. However in areas such as machinery, automobile, livestock and other major decisions related to the operation of the farm business, my father would exert 95% of the decision making power. In matters of major expense pertaining to the house, the decision would be made on a 50-50 basis. My mother makes 98% of the decisions regarding the expenditures for food and clothing. Although my father makes the decisions regarding expenditures, it is mother who is the bookkeeper.”

Back in the day, farm women—my mother, Grandma Turck, Aunt Lena—were equal partners in the economic production unit that centered on home and farm. The farm, however, was considered their husband’s business, and the ultimate decisions were his. 

The one area of difference was in “egg money.” Women fed the chickens, collected and sold the eggs, and butchered the chickens for Sunday dinner. “Egg money” was part of the farm’s production, but often seen as minimal and separate from fields and larger livestock. A few contemporary definitions summarize that difference: 

Urban Dictionary: “Farming women would earn “butter and egg money” from their poultry to be used for clothing, shoes, extra treats like white sugar or oranges, and anything store-bought for the home. Men would use crop money to pay the mortgage, or buy livestock or seed for next year.”

The Free Dictionary: old-fashioned Extra money earned by a farmer’s wife by selling various things produced by the farm, such as (though not only) eggs and butter.”

The Smithsonian Institution: “In her diaries, Elizabeth [Robinson] also tracked how many eggs were collected from the chickens each day, how much money was made on eggs, and how much money was made on butter. At the end of each month and year, Elizabeth totaled the income from these items made and how many eggs were collected. In 1951, Elizabeth recorded making $151.90 on butter, $85.35 on eggs, $237.25 together, and collected 5062 eggs.  Elizabeth recorded making $161.90 on butter, $49.40 on eggs, $211.30 together and collected 2880 eggs in 1952.  In 1953, Elizabeth wrote, “took in for year from eggs and butter. $255.80.”  From looking at only these three years, one can see that Elizabeth was bringing in significant income from her egg and dairy production. Elizabeth tends not to record amounts of money from other ventures, so clearly tracking the sale of butter and eggs and her egg collection was important to her.”

Aunt Lena’s 26 years of teaching, she was financially independent. Her salary—$50 a month—may have been small, but it was her own. Once she moved back to the farm with her brother, L.P., that was no longer true. They worked the farm together. The egg money, however, was likely still her own. The papers I have include stacks and stacks of egg money receipts along with some receipts for grain sales. The egg receipts are made out to L. Turck, while the grain sales receipts are made out to L.P. Turck. 

Egg money, while the most visible evidence of farm women’s economic participation, is hardly their only economic contribution to the home and farm. For example, think of the economics of food. Even my tiny backyard garden produces hundreds of dollars’ worth of tomatoes and arugula and basil and cucumbers. The farm garden and apple trees, potato and sweet corn fields, wild gooseberry and plum bushes, produced exponentially more. When I was a child, we never purchased canned vegetables or fruits: all of these were home-canned, stored in glass jars on floor-to-ceiling shelves in the basement “vegetable room.” We didn’t buy meat either. Beef, pork, and chicken were raised by the family, for consumption as well as for sale. 

Egg money and food production are measurable economic facts. The other labor of women: cleaning and maintaining the household, caring for children, preparing meals, and all the rest, are less often included as economic facts. When I read about the unpaid and unrecognized labor of women in the home today, I remember Aunty Helen. This is part of what she meant by home economics.

 In 2021, a New York Times article noted that, “If American women earned minimum wage for the unpaid work they do around the house and caring for relatives, they would have made $1.5 trillion last year. … Globally, women would have earned $10.9 trillion.”

The article continued:

“It isn’t a part of G.D.P. calculations and rarely factors into other measures of economic growth. It is notoriously difficult to value because the normal market signals of supply and demand don’t work: Traditional expectations that caring for children, the elderly and the infirm should be done gratis within the family obscure the true economic value of this work. And yet what the example of Iceland shows us is that women provide a huge unacknowledged subsidy to the smooth functioning of our economies, which would grind to a halt if women stopped doing this work.”

The impact of the 1975 Iceland women’s strike, a symbolic one-day action, highlighted the vital importance of women’s work at home, as men banks, factories, schools, and some stores closed, and economic activity ground to a halt. Some 45 years later, the COVID pandemic showed that women’s work—both at home and outside the home—remained undervalued and underappreciated

“The first year of the pandemic knocked 54 million women around the world out of work, widening the gender gap in employment. It could take years for that gap to narrow again.

“Of the women who lost jobs in 2020, almost 90 percent exited the labor force completely, compared with around 70 percent of men. …

“Not only did women suffer a disproportionate share of job losses but research suggests that their hours of unpaid labor increased as they undertook more than their share of child care, home schooling and elder care.”

Home economics includes the unpaid labor that women do at home, as well as their more measurable participation in the official labor force. We would all be better off, as individuals, families, and a nation, if our economic policies focused on the home as the basic economic unit. The economic security and stability of families should come before the ROI of billionaires and the profit margins of corporations. 

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