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Cal Had a Department of Home Economics? Part I

Hey Katie, what are you writing your thesis on?

Marriage education at UC Berkeley

…There was marriage education at UC Berkeley?

Yup, in the Department of Home Economics

…We had a Department of Home Economics???

So goes a typical conversation about my senior thesis.

I recently reread one of my favorite historical monographs: The Academic Kitchen: A Social History of Gender Stratification at the University of California, Berkeley by Maresi Nerad. (Yes I have favorite historical monographs. I am totes allowed to like books with long subtitles following a colon.) In it, Nerad examines the history of the home economics curriculum at UC Berkeley, from its inception in 1905 and establishment in 1916 to its demise in the 1950s, and what the department meant for women in science.

Home economics might recall images of cooking class in high school – and according to Nerad, that’s certainly what male administrators like Benjamin Ide Wheeler envisioned for the program. Home economics, she argues, was seen as a way to deal with all the women suddenly entering the college of letters and sciences. She quotes a 1904 talk he gave to the Women’s Associated Student Government of Berkeley that was printed in the Daily Californian:

“Womanhood is too good, too sacred, to change. Through education, women should grow more womanly…. She should not try to imitate men, to assimilate herself to a man’s college… You are not here with the ambition to be school teachers or old maids, but you are here for the preparation of marriage and motherhood. This education should tend to make you more serviceable as wives and mothers.”[1]

Remember that quote next time you have a gender & women’s studies class in Wheeler Hall!

Except it's difficult to judge those in the past based on the ethics of the present, etc. etc. that's a whole other post [photo by Falcorian via Creative Commons]

Except it’s difficult to judge those in the past based on the ethics of the present, etc. etc. that’s a whole other post [photo by Falcorian via Creative Commons]

But Berkeley being Berkeley, home economics at Cal wasn’t just a soufflé in the oven – the program drew sharp criticisms for actually being too scientifically rigorous. Nerad focuses her argument around the chair of the department: Agnes Fay Morgan, for whom Morgan Hall is named. Morgan, like many of her female colleagues, held a PhD, and came from a hard science background. And, like many of her female colleagues, Morgan faced difficulty in getting a tenure-track position in her field.

Nerad thus posits that while the administrators saw the Department of Home Economics as training for future homemakers, Morgan and her faculty approached it as a way to conduct actual science. Research generally focused on human nutrition, which, at the time, was not considered a high priority by male scientists, and at numerous times Morgan lobbied that the department be renamed for Human Nutrition. (It was at one point changed to Domestic Sciences.) Students in the department took strong foundational science classes, and regularly dissected rats. Morgan and the department strove for academic respectability.

Despite this drive, there were serious limits that ultimately ended the program. Although Morgan herself became a respected researcher, the sentiment never extended to her entire department. It was considered vocational learning as opposed to a pure science. Plus, there was the fact that it was mostly women in the department. Amplified by the embarrassment of the Loyalty Oath scandal, the department became a reputational liability to the university.

Shortly after Dr. Morgan retired, the University chose to move the department, along with the College of Agriculture, to the newly independent Davis campus. Berkeley retained the Human Nutrition component, which was growing with prestige. A man chaired this new and now respectable program made up of a mostly male faculty.

A home economics class in Toronto, Canada. [Image via public domain]

A home economics class in Toronto, Canada. [Image via public domain]

My thesis fit in towards the end of this narrative. I focused mainly on the transition from sex education through UC Extension in the 1940s to the “Sociology of Marriage” course in the 1950s. On the laundry list of future tasks: focusing on how the second version of the course navigated the change of departments. Like Home Economics, Sociology of Marriage strove to declare its own scientific merit. Judson T. Landis, the professor, assigned his own marriage textbook. I pulled the following quotes for my thesis:

  • The preface of the first edition introduced the book by stating, “Our purpose is to present in readable form the scientific knowledge which exists about mate selection, the courtship process, and the adjustment problems of marriage.”[2]
  • The preface also emphasized the soundness of the research methodology for the presented findings.[3]
  • Landis claimed that he and his colleagues “became increasingly aware of the lack of tested knowledge concerning most phases of marriage and family living.”[4]
  • In the second and third edition, he claimed that in the revising, they “tried to retain from the earlier editions all the materials that have stood the test of objectivity, scientific validity, and usefulness in meeting the special needs of young people.”[5]

I then concluded:

From these opening lines, one can glean several fundamental principles. The intended audience is made up of people who wish to be married, and the book is an attempt to translate scientific research into a more accessible form. This therefore reflected that the intended audience believed in science as a way to address personal issues.

In a more elegant way (my thesis could do with a good re-write), “Sociology of Marriage” promised students a “scientific” way to approach marriage. The class drew mainly from sociology, but also boasted bits of psychology and biology. This was implicitly in contrast to a faith-based approach. (I discuss the conflict between religion and science in terms of marriage education elsewhere in the paper.) The rest of the textbook constantly throws out figures and statistics as if to further verify that this is in fact science.

But, like, home economics, marriage education failed to live up to actual scientific rigor. Marriage classes across the nation began to die out in the 1960s, around the same time as the decline of academic home economics. I am not conflating nutritional science with sociology of marriage. But, going back to that laundry list of future tasks, it would be significant to note what parts of marriage education remained, and what parts dissolved.

(Also related to Nerad’s book: there’s also a whole gender aspect to marriage education that I was not able to investigate in as much depth as I would have liked to. I hope to do so soon, and perhaps there will be some blogs about that!)

In conclusion, I highly recommend reading this book. I gave the TL;DR, but really it should be IRG;RIN (It’s Really Good; Read It Now). Looking at the research methods alone is fascinating: Nerad stitches together oral histories, original interviews, and archives from myriad sources (mainly the University archives) that were often uncatalogued and incomplete. From these disparate sources, she tells a complete, comprehensible story. The plot moves fluidly, the prose is clear, and although she states from the beginning that she’s doing a gender analysis with organizational theory, she never bogs it down with jargon. Plus, you get to learn all kinds of dirt about the people they name buildings after. Call me a nerd, but that sounds like a pageturner to me!

But why should a normal person read it? Part II coming soon! (Hopefully tomorrow but maybe Thursday)

[1] Nerad, Maresi. The Academic Kitchen: A Social History of Gender Stratification at the University of California, Berkeley. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1999. 28

[2] Landis, Judson T and Landis, Mary G, Building a Successful Marriage (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1948), vii

[3] Landis and Landis, 1st edition, viii

[4] Landis and Landis, 1st edition, viii

[5] Landis, Judson T and Landis, Mary G, Building a Successful Marriage, 3rd Edition (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1958), vi



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