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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The home economics movement and the transformation of nineteenth century domestic ideology in America Kilgannon, Anne Marie


This thesis focuses on the transformation of domestic ideology in the United States from the late eighteenth century to the early twentieth century. It traces the emergence and development of the doctrine of separate spheres in the Revolutionary and early national periods and then examines the rise of the home economics movement in the post-Civil War period as an agent and expression of the demise of the separate spheres ideology of domesticity. The doctrine of separate spheres developed from a longstanding sense of separateness from the public world of men experienced by colonial women. The emergence of this doctrine was facilitated and shaped by the events of the Revolutionary War, the development and spread of commercial and industrial economic activities, changes in religious practises and new notions about the nature and nurture of children. The complex interplay of these factors strengthened women's sense of disjunction from the male-dominated sector of society, but bolstered women's sense of moral authority and autonomy within their sphere, the home. Women saw their domestic role as essential to the preservation of traditional values and morality and therefore critical for the preservation of social harmony. Supported by the doctrine of separate spheres, women organized to protect and project home values, hoping to reform society by their influence. Noted domestic theoreticians such as Sarah Hale and Catharine Beecher helped articulate this doctrine for women, but their work should be viewed as expressions of widely felt notions about women's place in the family and society. The emergence of home economics is viewed as a challenge to the basic precepts of the doctrine of separate spheres, thereby calling into question the universality of the acceptance of this doctrine by middle class women in the nineteenth century. As urban reformers, scientists and college educated women, home economists found the doctrine of separate spheres inadequate and outmoded as a guide for modern living. These women sought to replace traditional homemaking practises and ideals with a new domestic ideology, home economics, which they thought would more effectively meet the needs of the family in the twentieth century. Home economics developed as a social reform movement in two phases, each one dominated by a different generation of women. The pioneer generation of home economists were traditionally educated women who sought to inculcate working class and immigrant women and children with middle class domestic values and ideas. They initiated programs of education in various institutions, ranging from the public schools to church-sponsored mission classes, to teach girls and women homemaking skills such as cooking, sewing and budgeting. Although traditional in their goals, these women created new forms which quickly led to developments which went beyond a re-assertion of domesticity expressed in the doctrine of separate spheres. Home economists began to see themselves as scientifically-trained experts, not as ordinary homemakers. This development both coincided and was furthered by the rise of the second generation of home economists, who were largely college graduates and subsequently professors and administrators in institutions of higher learning. This group of women shaped home economics to meet some of their own needs, both personal and professional, and in the process changed the focus of the movement. Home economists became more concerned with reforming the middle class home and homemaker in this period. Home economics became embedded in colleges as a new inter-disciplinary course of study for women and as a new profession. Home economists promoted a new ideology of domesticity which had as its foundation the emulation of certain aspects of men's sphere: business values of efficiency and rational organization, the use of technology and a reliance on expertise. A belief in the reforming power of science replaced traditional notions of piety in the home economics ideology. Home economists created elaborate hierarchies of expertise based on achieved levels of education, thereby undermining the sense of sisterhood supported by the doctrine of separate spheres. Insofar as women adopted the home economics ideology of domesticity, the homemaker role lost its authority and autonomy and women's sphere lost its boundaries and sense of mission which had informed nineteenth century women's notions of their role in society.

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