Commentary

The Feminist Case for Home Economics

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Lindsey Bodner

 

Home economics suffers from an undeservedly bad reputation: an ‘easy A,’ many assume this now irrelevant class was meant to teach women to bake cakes and conform to sexist gender norms. In fact, however, the field began as an organized social movement in the late 1800s whose main goal was to professionalize domestic work in order to give women more free time and increased satisfaction in the home. According to scholars like Megan Elias, newly established home economics departments at universities were academically rigorous, dedicated to using the physical and social sciences to study domestic labor.[1] Students took courses in diverse subjects ranging from biochemistry and bacteriology to economics, and in their research and experiments, they discovered and propagated the best methods for performing household tasks. These early leaders aligned home economics with exacting scientific and academic study, while others emerging around the same time, including many in Jewish schools, were more vocationally oriented.[2] The field had its critics on both sides of the coin. Some scientists (unfortunately) felt that the study of the home, and its association with women, degraded their disciplines. On the flip side, the courses that offered vocational training were derided as too quotidian and not academic enough. Detractors aside, however, as the century progressed, home ec gained popularity and proliferated in colleges, high schools, and lower grades.

As progress enabled women’s participation in the work force and outsized consumerism made advertisers “experts” in the domestic sphere, home economics classes were gradually replaced with other subjects in most schools, both secular and Jewish.[3] This is unfortunate. While some negative stereotypes and other criticisms were warranted, I believe Modern Orthodox day schools should reintroduce upgraded and contemporary versions of home economics—both theory and practical skills application—for middle and high school students.

Like others who have written eloquently about the challenges of working while parenting during the pandemic, I have observed through intimate conversations with people, especially women, that many in the Modern Orthodox community are struggling. Many have left the workforce or decreased their work hours because of increased demands at home. In addition to the virus itself, the pandemic has severely curtailed previously relied upon support systems: food/restaurants, babysitters, school, social ties, and leisure activities. Even prior to COVID-19, women most frequently bore the lion’s share of household responsibility and mental load, and now large numbers of women and mothers are being set back a decade or more. Some families are drowning, and women are shouldering huge burdens as they deal with new financial challenges, changes in long-term career plans, and increased work from—and family members working and schooling together in—the home. As a professional and a mother, I understand these challenges deeply. From my work at the helm of an education foundation, I see how the home economics movement can be rediscovered to improve the lives of today’s students so the next generation can avoid some of the challenges we are now experiencing. While we are optimistic about vaccinations, and we hope COVID-19 is just a terrible blip on the radar, in all likelihood, the coming decades will bring an increased number of emergencies: environmental, epidemiological, and technological. A modern home economics course in day schools could offer both men and women: (1) more shared language and responsibility for household tasks, including finances; and (2) a mindset change. Tasks in the home are commonly considered drudgery or at least secondary to the “important work” of careers, but with greater efficiency and elevated discourse, they can be more of a source of pride and satisfaction. And we would do our young community members a great service to give them these practical tools.

Contrary to what one might assume, the modernization and reintroduction of home economics classes would be a pioneering feminist project. In the 1960s, 1970s, and beyond, activists and intellectuals opened opportunities for women to work in jobs in the public sphere (such as medicine, law, entrepreneurship, and all manner of office work) which had traditionally been reserved for men. Yet second-wave feminism, deservedly or not, has been criticized for ennobling “men’s work” while failing to elevate what was once called “women’s work,” including caregiving and domestic labor. While women gained access to the public sphere, efforts to shape men, marriage, and household labor—and to accommodate working mothers—fell by the wayside. Domestic labor, which already suffered from its perceived lower status, was also denigrated by some feminists eager to distance themselves from their unliberated sisters. Against this backdrop, it’s no surprise that home economics courses steadily fell out of favor. However, recent attempts to reshape the division of marital labor and childcare have gained popular interest as more people recognize the essential nature of this work in any functioning society and the nagging challenges posed to working people in the public sphere without support in the private. Excellent home economics classes would help feminist men and women to pick up the baton and elevate domestic work in individuals’ lives and societal discourse.

Further, the time is right for curricular innovation. Someday, we will look back at this period as one of tectonic shifts in Jewish education. In 2020, educators had to make drastic alterations to school formats with painstaking care and creativity. From these challenging circumstances, those in the field of education are drawing wisdom about how students learn and thrive (and don’t), and we will continue to implement fruitful innovations even after the pandemic. With children at home and work upended, families are also asking big questions about what expensive day school education should include and distilling what is “essential.” Many are relocating, and some have opted for homeschooling, public school, and different models. As we adapt to a future shaped by this pandemic and try to better align education with our values, the community of parents, educators, board members, and philanthropists are due for a larger conversation about the purpose of middle and high school Jewish education: What do we really want our children to know and be able to do when they graduate?

Finally, practical life skills are not just good common sense; they reflect rabbinic priorities as well. A classic passage in the Talmud (Kiddushin 29a) provides halakhic guidance as to what a parent must teach a child:

A father is obligated with regard to his son, to teach him Torah, and marry him, and to teach him a trade. And some say: A father is also obligated to teach his son to swim. Rabbi Yehuda says: Any father who does not teach his son a trade teaches him banditry.

In short, the Talmud is instructing that parents must give children practical life skills. Further, preparing a child to marry and be a good partner are Torah values in which we should strive to educate our children. However, most Modern Orthodox schools are designed as college prep schools, heavily emphasizing academics over life skills. In addition to being inculcated with ahavat ha-Torah and ahavat ha-beriyot, graduates of day schools should be given more concrete options. Yes, they should be able to succeed academically in college and graduate school, but they should also have practical skills. First and foremost, they should be competent at running a home, which is in many ways both a trade in and of itself and an opportunity for young men and women to learn about the shared responsibilities of marriage.

What might such a course of study look like? We might begin by reviewing what was included in a classic home ec curriculum. The following skills were traditionally included in home ec classes over the past century:

  • Preparing healthy meals;
  • Housekeeping, including laundry;
  • Basic household repairs/sewing;
  • Menu planning and grocery shopping;
  • Personal finance, budgeting; and
  • Childcare/parenting.

Some adults and young people alike will see this list and get excited about learning these topics in a systematic way, whereas others are less convinced. Accordingly, Modern Orthodox day schools should rethink which of the preceding skills to cover in a 21st-century home economics class. I suggest that schools and educators planning home economics classes cherry-pick from and add to the preceding list based on (1) what they believe to be the most helpful skills for today’s world and (2) Torah values, the latter of which includes re-centering the family, elevating “women’s work,” and empowering students with practical life skills to help them succeed.

If I were building a home ec course for high school students, I would consider financial literacy and meal planning and preparation to be foundational priorities. There have been repeated calls by students and the public for personal finance to be taught in schools, and if it is not offered as a separate class, a personal finance unit should be offered in a home economics course, covering the basics of budgeting, saving, taxes, credit cards, and, most critically, financial freedom. Next, there is no more basic skill than cooking. Health and financial benefits make learning how to plan, shop, and cook deeply practical. The added creativity involved, the benefits of fostering community through hosting, and the satisfaction of feeding oneself and one’s family are too valuable to overlook. In 2021, environmentally-conscious living is a valuable  inclusion in a home ec curriculum. With these skills, students can contribute more to their home environments in the present and would gain a backbone set of skills as they leave their parents’ homes.

Additional factors to consider when choosing which skills to focus on include the facilities available, grade level, student interests, how much time is dedicated to the class (project, unit, semester, or year), and the abilities of the teacher. Seventh graders, for example, are likely to benefit more from creative outlets like cooking and sewing, whereas personal finance is engaging for older students who can “see the light at the end of the tunnel” of mandatory schooling, and they can readily imagine how saving and smart planning can positively impact their lives.

Arguments Against Home Economics

Opposition to including home economics in Modern Orthodox day schools may include limited time in the school day, a preference for academic subjects, and the argument that young people should learn these skills at home. I address each of these arguments below.

While a separate home ec class is warranted, it is of course true that schools are pressed for time. With ingenuity, home economics content can be folded into existing classes. Fusing home ec in whole or in part to other classes can combine practical skills with STEM subjects (a sewing unit in geometry or a food preparation unit in biology or chemistry), language (a unit or an abbreviated home ec course in Hebrew or Spanish), or limmudei kodesh. To take an example of the latter, at least one Jewish high school offers a cooking class/hilkhot kashrut combination. In the same vein, high schools can also consider offering more focused treatment of topics relating to home economics in electives like personal finance, accounting, sewing and design, real estate, cooking, and childcare classes, which could include anything from education theory to child development to a CPR minicourse.

The argument that home economics is not academically rigorous enough for school is not new, but it is flimsy. Earlier in the century when sociology, bacteriology, organic chemistry, botany, and more were studied as prerequisites for home economics courses at the university level, critics claimed the classes were too academically advanced for such unexceptional subject matter in university settings.[4]  The bottom line is that schools can build the classes to suit their particular academic priorities. I suggest that a home economics class in a Jewish day school include academic multi-disciplinary content like text study, history, and detailed discussion of contemporary social issues. In this example, home economics teachers can facilitate conversations and assign reading about class, economics, feminism, and mental load. Drawing on the research regarding the efficacy of experiential learning, the most effective home ec class, whether standalone or as project units, would also contain hands-on skills, build on context recognizable from home, and layer complex issues and academic knowledge atop the basic course skills.

Some skeptics would correctly suggest that children can learn cooking, cleaning, personal finance, and other home ec skills at home. However, for a variety of reasons, including parental time constraints, lack of knowledge on the part of the parents, and embarrassment about or preference for privacy around finances, they don’t. One reason we have school is to systematize learning and have it facilitated by a skilled teacher, and this is no different. Educators interested in teaching home economics would likely need to augment and hone their knowledge, and limited training would be appropriate.[5] (Home ec teachers in day schools could also form their own associations to share best practices and uniquely Jewish subject matter or learnings, but that is beyond the scope of this article.) These skills do not come naturally, and it is simply unrealistic to expect all young people to instinctively possess domestic talents when they haven’t really been exposed to them. It’s true that young people might be able to “figure it out” eventually, but at a cost. Practical survival skills would give young people a better, more confident start in life, which leads to real-world success and satisfaction. For example, sticking to a simple budget, limiting delivery services, and opting instead to cook at home can save hundreds of dollars a month, which can be put into income-producing assets setting young people on a road to financial freedom. Why wait for expenses to rise and former day school students to be well into their twenties or beyond to figure this out?

The benefits of teaching practical skills and home economics will serve students well now and prepare them for their bright futures as well as for uncertainties ahead. On one hand, I want to refrain from painting too rosy a picture of students taking home economics and then deciding to cook all the family meals or file the family taxes. On the other hand, I don’t want to discount these possible benefits either. Young people feel empowered with increased responsibility, but at no time in history has adult responsibility been delayed as long as it is today. With greater knowledge and skills, students can contribute more to family life and certainly should have a greater appreciation for the work it takes to shop, cook meals, clean, and manage the finances. This could be an opportunity for family learning and growth as well.

In the Modern Orthodox world, I think most would agree that getting married and having children is a value if not an expectation. However, aside from (too rarely) well-executed kallah and hatan classes given in the months and weeks before a wedding, there are few opportunities to explore what it actually takes to build a successful relationship. Financial incompatibility and resentment are major contributors to marital strife and divorce. While most modern couples aspire to fair, if not equal, partnership inside the home, few achieve it principally because of unmet expectations around household tasks and childcare. Home economics classes are a way to bridge the gap between young men and women’s expectations and the reality of running a home and raising children. Men might take on more household responsibility if they were mentored and trained to do so. Additionally, if young men and women internalize lessons about joint responsibility, we would enhance equity in marriage and promote a shared set of basic skills and, perhaps as importantly, a shared language around them for students to use when they need it.

Modern Orthodox Jewish families that fall into higher income brackets, like other Americans, frequently outsource their personal needs to varying degrees. Whether cleaning, day care, or takeout/ready-made meals, even young adults and those who are not in positions of wealth rely heavily on others to provide for their basic needs. As I advocate strongly in favor of home economics as a way to elevate the status of domestic work and gently encourage families to tackle more of their own household needs, I also recognize both the necessity for many families to outsource some domestic labor and the personal nature of that decision. In full disclosure, my husband and I work full-time and employ a housekeeper and a nanny. For those who find these decisions a source of moral and/or financial challenge, they become financially and psychologically easier to weigh when families know how to do the work themselves. Even for students who eventually outsource some of the tasks they learn in home economics, the course is beneficial in the same two major ways. First, students of home economics would know how a meal is cooked, how a house is cleaned, and what their accountants and tax professionals do, dignifying each of these service providers and increasing connection and empathy. Second, even when family work is outsourced, most of the burden of coordination, training, and management falls on women; having men trained in these areas will enable more equitable sharing of employee management and the mental load.

Even with women’s improved career prospects and outsourcing, homes and children still need to be cared for, and no one will ever care more about your personal finances than you. Observant Jews continually look for inspiration and efficiency in required activities like daily prayer, study, weekly holidays, the yearly cycle of the Torah. Encouraging young people to find purpose in “mundane” daily tasks is freeing and revolutionary in today’s world, but, as we’ve argued, it’s not a stretch to identify this as a Torah principle.

Finally, requiring home economics in schools brings up values-driven questions that I believe we want students to ask as they plan their lives. For example, sewing is a skill that most people today outsource, but is this in line with our values? More people, especially younger people, want to decrease their carbon footprint and waste output, and most people strive to increase efficiency in work and life. Can we really call ourselves independent, carbon-conscious, or efficient if we have to throw away a shirt or pay the expense in time and money to send it to a tailor when it loses a button? Rather than looking askance at the daily work it takes to run a home, home economics classes give permission to students—male and female—to find more satisfaction and meaning in building and maintaining their homes, whether they have careers outside or not.

The world has gotten much smaller with Covid-19. Contagion and regulations have forced us inward, into our domestic spheres and in closer proximity to others in our households. Working parents with children at home have faced significant challenges, but a wise person can learn from any situation. If we ask what we can learn from the past year, one lesson might be the value of these intimate domestic spaces and how their smooth functioning is the result of expertise and effort. If we consider what could have made the past year go more smoothly, better domestic skills, financial preparedness, and more equity in partnership would seem to be near the top of many people’s lists. Of course, we can take action in our own lives to insulate ourselves from future challenges, but we can also ensure that our children have an easier path. Adding modern home economics classes to day school curricula would be a trailblazing project, and it could mean the difference between our students drowning, treading water, or adeptly navigating the rapids yet to come.


[1] Megan J. Elias, Stir It Up: Home Economics in American Culture (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).

[2] Baron Maurice De Hirsch funded many Jewish schools including the ORT schools where vocational training and home economics were key curricular elements. See, e.g., https://www.lostcolleges.com/baron-de-hirsch-agricultural-school?fbclid=IwAR3JC5vOnzl0_UCXdplgYWupwzj2T7YZOqvAVYmLhMN-I_Y07G3Tq_NB5i4. The Educational Alliance school included cooking classes and other practical skills; and https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/richman-julia?fbclid=IwAR0vw-2_mf2lkZQbsC6PGxoqO0es1uU2GB2iF2AduSV2SwIihAl_9OJ2lgU. These classes were offered to help students learn skills they would need for life before the more academically focused and formal home economics movement started in universities and trickled down via federal funding into public high schools, middle schools, and even elementary schools.

[3] An exception in the Jewish context is the Bais Yaakov movement, which offers home economics classes in its right-wing Orthodox girls’ schools. Other Hasidic movements also offer cooking classes to girls. Parallel boys’ schools do not receive home economics training at their yeshivot.

[4] University of Missouri offered a course called General Foods from 1912-1914. Prerequisites for the course included organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, botany, bacteriology, and physiology. Other universities  had similar requirements. Still, the general public, and even deans of the universities, considered home economics to be “cooking classes.” Elias attributes this to gender: “To allow work that was traditionally performed by women to be considered professional [rather than amateur] was problematic because it destabilized established categories,” and “culture classified anything to do with the kitchen as amatuer” (Stir It Up,  24-27).

[5] For example, the International Federation for Home Economics provides certification, community, and materials (https://www.ifhe.org/events/professional-learning/). In addition, there are other certifications available, as well as free and low-cost materials.