Home Economics. An exhibition takes on the surprising feminist history of household science and brings attention to present-day domestic labor

My grandmother raised ten kids. She  was  pregnant or nursing for almost twenty years  straight. She had twelve pregnancies, eight  biological children who grew to be adults, and  adopted two more kids on top of all that. She  did the laundry all day, every day.  She made gallons of soup and pickles from  scratch and jam from the garden she kept in  the backyard. And every night after dinner, she  sat at the kitchen table with her older daughters  and smoked a well-deserved cigarette.

There is no doubt in my mind that what  my grandma did for all those years was work.  Hard work—physically demanding, mentally  taxing labor that contributed to society in a  tangible way. I have a father, nine aunts and  uncles, and an enormous number of cousins  as evidence. And yet, no one ever paid her for  it. As far as I know, no one ever even talked  about paying her for it. Her work wasn’t part  of the GDP , and no one questioned that she  should be the one in charge of running the  house rather than my grandfather.

Sixty years before my grandmother was  cooking for a small army of children, there  was a group of women who thought the tasks  often dismissed as chores should be taken  seriously as skilled labor. Charlotte Perkins  Gilman , well-known for writing the feminist  classic The Yellow Wallpaper , also penned an  entire book suggesting an economic strategy  to pay women for their work in the home  and outlining the necessity of communal approaches  to housework. She promoted collective  laundries and community ovens and  wrote utopian fiction about a world where  women of all classes were freed from the inefficiencies  and mundanities of housework.  Lucy Salmon , a social historian at Vassar ,  fervently advocated for basic labor rights for  domestic servants, including an eight-hour  workday, decent wages, and respect for domestic  work and the workers who did it. Ellen  Swallow Richards , the first woman admitted  to MIT , conducted scientific experiments  seeking solutions to malnutrition, and created  methodologies for testing water to make sure  it was safe to drink.

These women were part of a group of  Progressive reformers and first-wave feminists  who imagined the home as a sphere of  social change. They were also some of the key  figures in a movement we have come to associate  mostly with snickerdoodles and crocheted  doilies: Home Economics.

Home Economics has changed tremendously  over the 20th century since the days  of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Ellen Swallow  Richards, and Lucy Salmon. After World War  I , the impulse for social reform gave way to  a new emphasis on individualism, and the  field of home economics followed suit. Home  economists focused on improving methods  of homemaking within the private home, increasingly  relying on scientific efficiency and  consumer goods. The academic discipline  became institutionalized and commercialized.  Professional home economists worked  for food corporations as nutritional consultants,  taught courses in schools that promoted  “American” ideas of domestic culture,  and largely disappeared from the spheres of  policy, culture, and activism.  By the 70s, Home Economics had been  almost completely detached from its political  roots. In 1972, feminist activist and  writer Robin Morgan  began a speech to the  American Home Economics Association   by saying, “As a radical feminist, I am here  addressing the enemy.” For many feminists  of Morgan’s generation, Home Economics  was a primary location of oppression, a systematized  way to keep women from exploring  roles outside the home. As the discipline  of Home Economics morphed, its roots as a  movement interested in re-imagining domestic  spaces were forgotten and the lessons and  innovations from an early period of innovation  and radical imagination were largely lost.

Now, more than 100 years after the term  “Home Economics” was coined, we are still  haunted by many of the same problems the  original group of reformers was attempting  to confront: lack of childcare options, the  de-valuing of care work, a consumer society  that is not connected to how goods are made,  unfair labor conditions for domestic workers,  gender inequity, and hunger and malnutrition.  These problems hit us hardest in our  daily lives, in our most personal moments  and spaces, and prompt questions that can  feel mundane, private, and outside of political  and social conversations. Who will do the  dishes tonight? What will my child eat? Just  how clean does my house have to be? Who will  take care of my dying parent? Feminist scholars  from Charlotte Perkins Gilman to Silvia  Federici  have shown us that it is essential to  grapple with these issues publicly and as part  of a larger conversation about social change.

As one of the curators at the Jane Addams  Hull-House Museum , I have had the opportunity  to help design a conversation around  this topic, bringing together activists, artists,  scholars, and community members on the  forefront of thinking about these questions  and problems. Their work makes up  what the Museum calls “21st Century Home  Economics,” an exhibit that grapples with  domestic issues as they relate to race, class,  gender, immigration, environmental sustainability,  and global justice.

The exhibit re-invigorates the category of  Home Economics as an idea conceived of by  Progressive feminist reformers in the early  20th century and puts that history into dialogue  with groups and ideas that might not  immediately imagine themselves as home  economists. The Chicago Coalition of  Household Workers  is part of the national  struggle of domestic workers fighting for a  very similar set of basic labor rights that Lucy  Salmon advocated for in 1897. They are cocurating  a group of artifacts to illuminate the  nature of care work, the particular struggles  domestic workers face, and the way that this  work is crucial to the functioning of society.  Artist Carole Frances Lung  (aka Frau Fiber )  is creating a gallery-based sewing project that  transforms old t-shirts into objects of use and  beauty. This installation animates notions that  are as pertinent today as they were for the first  generation of Home Economists—efficiency,  sustainability, and craft. Food service workers  around Chicago will be brought into the exhibit  as experts on school lunch through audio pieces  created by youth at Street-Level Youth Media   over the next six months, helping to imagine  new avenues for change in the ever-present  fight for health and wellness in public schools.  Finally, groups organizing around accessibility  to quality childcare will show possible points of  change in a problem that women and families  have faced consistently since the rise of industrial  labor—determining how to create time  for community, family, and work. By putting  these different topics and themes into the  same room, the Hull-House Museum seeks to  create a space of conversation between objects,  people, history, and ideas in the hopes of developing  categories of change and meaning.

When the Hull-House Museum undertook  this project, one of the first questions  we asked as a staff was a basic one—who  took care of the domestic space in the Hull-  House Settlement ? The answer illuminated  how often the voices associated with domestic  space go unheard and how the museum as a  cultural and historical space has an opportunity  and an obligation to provide amplification  for these stories.

Both in the historical and popular imagination,  the story of the Hull-House Settlement  begins when Jane Addams  and Ellen Gates  Starr  moved into the Hull mansion on  Chicago’s near west side to start what would  become a international center of social  reform and cultural innovation. But, they did  not move in alone.

Mary Keyser , a housekeeper  and crucial contributor to Hull-House  Settlement, moved in as well. For the next six  years, Mary Keyser ran the household and  shouldered the work of domestic life so that  other residents could do the wide range of  work that made Hull-House a crucial space  for democracy.

Keyser’s story is one example of how work  that takes place in domestic space has been  undervalued as labor and largely forgotten in  conventional historical narratives. As we bring  Mary Keyser into the museum through artifacts  and photographs, we will literally make her life  more visible and provide an opportunity for  visitors to engage with her as an historical actor.  We hope also to provide an opportunity for  visitors to see the work of those who engage  in invisible labor today, both in the exhibition  space and in their own lives. We all have people  who do care work for us, including mothers,  lunch ladies, nannies, house cleaners, friends,  and partners. These are the people in our  lives, people like my grandmother, who labor  behind closed doors to do invisible care labor,  or as the Domestic Workers Alliance  calls  it, “the work that makes all work possible.” ◊

 

21st Century Home Economics” will be in view  through 2013 at the Jane Addams Hull-House  Museum, 800 S. Halsted St.