I BLAME HOME ECONOMICS
When the Baby Boomers reached puberty, we were divided into two distinct groups. The Bible, which had been read aloud to us each morning of elementary school, states that God “created them male and female” and the American public school system made it their business to ensure that we did not deviate from our prescribed paths with a curriculum designed to strengthen our gender identities. Therefore, sometime during the junior high years, all boys were assigned to Wood Shop, while all girls took Home Economics.
As I didn’t have the right anatomical parts for wood shop, I can’t speak to its longterm effects on the men of my generation, nor can I even guess at the thinking behind the idea that woodworking was the one skill all boys needed to have (I would have preferred the men in my life had studied auto mechanics). But, at the age of 12 or 13, none of the girls I knew questioned the idea that we would need the useful homemaking skills we were about to learn in Home Economics. If any did, they would never have admitted it for fear of being perceived as “unfeminine.”
Some of us aspired to loftier goals than becoming housewives and our elders indulged those fantasies to a certain degree. The high school had elective typing classes for those of us who might be inspired to work as secretaries. At 13, we were old enough to serve as “Candy Stripers” in local hospitals. That unpaid job came with a cute peppermint-striped uniform and entailed giving out juices and magazines to patients. For girls who had read the Cherry Ames series (Cherry Ames, Student Nurse; Cherry Ames, Army Nurse; Cherry Ames, Department Store Nurse, etc.) candy-striping seemed like the first step toward a life of unending adventure. My elementary school had even had a “Future Teachers” club, for girls who wanted to become educators.
That was pretty much it for career choices - typing, nursing, teaching. Those three comprised the sum total of sanctioned female professions. A mid-century adolescent female was free to entertain any of those ambitions so long as she didn’t intend to pursue it past marriage, or at least not past the onset of her first pregnancy. Working women were tolerated in post-WWII suburbia; working mothers were not.
Besides serving as a way to stay busy while awaiting a marriage proposal, having job skills could also be a hedge against life’s unanticipated disasters - like the possibility of widowhood or, worse yet, spinsterhood - but homemaking was considered our true calling. That idea had been so engrained in us by the time we reached junior high, that it didn’t occur to us there was anything odd about walking into a classroom filled with stoves, sinks, aprons and sewing machines.
I took Home Ec twice - once, briefly, at a school in New Jersey, where we lived for a few months when I was in the 7th grade. I don’t consider that a representative experience though. The stoves and sewing machines were there but I can’t remember ever using them. I think we did busy work at our desks and once in a while the teacher would say, “Someday we’re gonna make pizza,” which she pronounced “peetser.”
In the 8th grade I was back in Florida and had a whole, rigorous year of Home Ec, which, at my school, consisted of one semester devoted to sewing skills and another to cooking and baking. The fall semester was a nightmare for me. We sat in little kitchen nooks, our desks facing each other in groups of four. Each desk had a sewing machine and space underneath to store supplies and we huddled there making the same blouse from the same pattern.
Anne Edmiston sat at the desk to my right. She had made some of her own clothes before so she was kind of an advanced placement student when it came to sewing - but it wasn’t just Anne. All three of the other girls in my group seemed to know what they were doing. I was the only one who was totally clueless.
Oh, I got the hang of pinning the patterns, cutting the fabric and sewing a straight seam, but only after one of my classmates showed me what had to be done. What completely mystified me was how the other girls figured out what to do without anyone telling them! How did they know when to baste, when to iron, when to turn the fabric inside out? The teacher sat at her desk and said nothing, unless we had the temerity to go up to her and ask. I usually asked Anne instead - even though it was embarrassing.
How could all these girls my age have gotten so far ahead of me in attaining the skills of womanhood? Had they been endowed at birth with an extra helping of feminine intuition? Was I a late bloomer? Did my lack of sewing skills have anything to do with my flat chest? Was I missing the X chromosome entirely? It was only at the end of the semester that I finally discovered the set of instructions, still folded inside the pattern package. “STEP 1” they read in bold, mocking letters. “STEP 2…”
The second semester got off to a better start. The four of us who’d been sitting together now formed a team to work on the culinary projects. The first of these was biscuits. Again there was no instruction from the teacher. We were given a recipe and told to follow it but I was okay with that. I knew my way around a kitchen.
Anne was first to take a turn as head chef and seemed as bewildered by the process as I had been by sewing. It was hard to hide my glee when she ended up with a mass of untamed dough that refused to be formed into anything resembling a biscuit. There was dough stuck to the bowl, to the rolling pin, to the pastry cloth, the counter, Anne’s hands, her apron… I could see the desperate plea for help in her eyes and knew this was my turn to shine!
“You have to use flour,” I said. “Sprinkle flour on the pasty cloth and rub some on the rolling pin and on your hands. And work some more into the dough.”
Anne followed my advice and breathed a sigh of relief. Soon, she was able to roll the dough, smooth it out, and cut it into neat circles. I looked forward to getting the credit for saving our biscuits and our grade and was sure I would emerge as the new star of Home Ec class. But when it came time for our products to be taste-tested, other biscuits were awarded A’s while ours only got a B. The teacher was brief and to the point about what the problem was: “Too much flour!” I could tell Anne and the others blamed me for our powder-coated, leaden biscuits.
In the late 60’s, the times they were a-changing, and by the time I graduated from high school, women were routinely heading for college and careers as doctors and lawyers, journalists and electrical engineers. Yes, even Wood-Working - once strictly the province of pimply-faced boys with breaking voices and wanna-beards - was a field now open to females!
There were still those young women so hell-bent on leading the June Cleaver life that they’d bought hope chests and sets of waterless cookware while still in 12th grade. For them, there were universities where you could get a degree in Home Economics. Most such programs had been started in the early 20th century, when women were still fighting for the vote and had provided a way of meeting their demands for higher education while making sure they never overstepped the bounds society had set down for them.
Carnegie-Mellon University, where I studied drama, contained Margaret Morrison Carnegie College. According to Wikipedia,
The curriculum in the first year included principles of science and
economics, history, English, accounts, social ethics, sewing, drawing,
cookery, and personal hygiene. In their second and third years, students
could choose to specialize in secretarial courses, household arts and
institutional management, technical dressmaking, costume design,
applied design, or architectural and interior decoration.
Notice that was “architectural decoration,” not architecture. The “Maggie Murph girls,” as we called them, were already a breed apart - an endangered species, in fact. We wore jeans to class; they still wore the skirts and dresses we’d all been required to wear in high school. We let our hair grow to our waists. They set theirs nightly and slept on hard plastic rollers. We wore love beads; they wore pearls.
Cornell University’s Department of Home Economics boasted “practice apartments,” It was one of 40-50 such programs in the US, where “practice mothers” (students) took turns caring for “practice babies” (real babies who were leased to the school by orphanages). In a day and age when the social stigma attached to having a child out-of-wedlock could ruin lives, there was no shortage of “orphans” for the coeds to practice on until the real thing came along.
As psychologists and social workers became more aware of the potential harm to the babies of being practiced upon by large groups of rotating mothers, court cases ensued and those programs were all ultimately shut down. The burgeoning women’s liberation movement took care of the rest. In 1969 the New York State College of Home Economics at Cornell was revamped and renamed. Margaret Morrison College closed its doors in 1973. I, for one, was not sorry to see the demise of Home Ec as a college major, although I’m sure there are some who think we threw out the practice baby with the practice bath water.
I have no problem with women, men nor any non-binaries in between, who choose parenting and homemaking over outside careers, but I can’t quite believe that I spent my early years in a society that refused women the scope of ambitions that it afforded men and one that tried to whitewash that oppression by labeling it as education specially tailored to women.
I only had to take Home Ec for a year but it left a big impression on me. I remember the free, illustrated booklets they gave us that were designed to help us transition from scabby-kneed, tree-climbing tomboys into poised young ladies who would one day know when to wear short white gloves and when to wear long ones. Those slender volumes were filled with hair styling tips. In the days before conditioner, flat beer was touted as setting lotion and a lemon juice rinse before sun-drying your hair was guaranteed bring out blonde highlights. There were some great recipes (the Orange Fluffy French Toast is still a keeper) and some very bad advice, like: “Your fingernails were meant to be jewels, not tools,” and “Boys want to be the center of attention. If you want boys to like you, laugh at their jokes. Don’t make jokes of your own!”
That last piece of advice alone, probably cost me the career I should have had. Clearly, women like Elaine May and Nora Ephron were either not required to take Home Ec or they didn’t pay enough attention in school, as evidenced by the fact that they became successful comedy writers, while I spent the 70’s and 80’s mastering the art of French cooking with Julia Child, sewing my kids’ Halloween costumes and laughing at my first husband’s jokes. Call it a bizarre coincidence, if you like, but I blame Home Economics.
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Watch Boomers Web Series - the show about the last generation to be educated in Wood Shop and Home Ec. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCjJFiFC8RAJyIfdR2I806Ug.
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