Home Economics

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 he 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 were 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 co-curating 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.”