"As a radical feminist, I am here addressing the enemy,” activist Robin Morgan told the American Home Economics Association convention in 1972. She believed that home ec had turned women into “a limp, gibbering mass of jelly waiting for marriage” and urged educators to level with their female students about how consignment to the home is central to “the economic bigotry against women.” She then invited the home economists to join the battle against gendered domestic education, but warned that the women’s movement was “going to win in any event.”
On this front, at least, feminists did win. Home economics fell out of favor soon after Morgan’s address. Most high schools and colleges stopped requiring and in many cases offering the classes that had taught women— and occasionally men, but mostly women—how to sew a button, boil an egg, set a table, darn a sock, and otherwise tend to the well-being of spouses and children.
Home economics courses were first meant to improve a woman’s lot in life by legitimizing domestic work. But they also reinforced attitudes entrenched since the dawn of the industrialized age: that while middle-class white men’s destinies lay in the public and professional sphere, middle-class white women’s duties were in providing those male wage-earners a comfortable home and well-raised children. As one New Hampshire pastor explained in 1827, “It is at home, where man ... seeks a refuge from the vexations and embarrassments of business.” A woman’s role was to maintain that refuge, a task from which there could be no freeing end: “There is more to be learned about pouring out tea and coffee than most young ladies are willing to believe,” proclaimed the nineteenth-century women’s magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book.
The idea of teaching boys to bake banana bread is surely anathema to social conservatives, aghast at what they perceive to be the gendered inversions (and perversions) of the past half century.
Of course this view was incompatible with the project of Morgan and her Second Wave sisters, who were rightfully eager to hustle women off the paths that led only to floor-scrubbing and cradle-rocking. But today, 40 years after the Second Wave helped to obliterate home economics, we need the discipline to make a comeback: rebooted, tweaked, and taught to both boys and girls, across classes and at younger ages than ever before.
First, and perhaps most obviously, co-educational home economics classes would help women. Feminism may have effectively eliminated the training programs through which young girls were groomed for homemaking, but it never eradicated the attitudes that undergirded that training. The result is a world in which women might run (a few) universities, corporations, and major newspapers (for a time, at least) but are still expected to shoulder the cooking, cleaning, and hauling of offspring to dental appointments. The endless domestic burden was dubbed “the second shift” by the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild 25 years ago, and it has not been much alleviated since. This double workload cuts to the heart of why women now graduate from colleges and universities at higher rates than their male peers, but are far less likely to make it to the upper ranks of their professions; they are stalled mid-life by untenable demands on time and body.
It’s true that men have, over the past half century, begun to contribute more as parents: The number of stay-at-home fathers has nearly tripled in the last 20 years—to a meager 214,000. One Census study showed that among men married to working women with children under four, 20 percent of fathers served as the primary caretakers. But despite the increase in hours men now spend with children, intensely gendered prejudices are slow to change, producing some scrambled ideas about emasculation when men take on responsibilities we still code as “female.” We need to rewire those attitudes wholesale and early, to teach boys from the time they are small that their obligations are to diapering as well as to moneymaking.
It’s a hack that could help women and children circumnavigate persistent injustices in social policy: the lack of mandated paid family leave and the absence of subsidized child care. For many Americans, there is often no practical, affordable way to both work and parent. But if men were raised to feel the pull of family responsibility, it would, at the very least, double the options available to many families. And though America will likely never adopt Scandinavian social policies, acquainting men with complex domestic obligations might also increase the chances of improving child care and leave polices. Why? Because it wouldn’t just be women going on about how crucial those policies are.
For men, there would be a whole other range of benefits. We’re often told about the “boy crisis in education”—that boys are more likely to be fidgety and to have trouble focusing in school. Their physical skills—once a key to their success in a robust manufacturing economy—are less marketable in a knowledge economy. A study performed by the research group Third Way found that boys across classes are disadvantaged in elementary education: By eighth grade, only 31 percent of them received As and Bs, compared with nearly half of their female peers.
The addition of home economics to a grade-school curriculum could help these boys, particularly if that curriculum also included an element of interpersonal, emotional education that taught them how to express affection and disagreement and how to ask questions and speak up for themselves. Boys are still too often made to feel as if they should communicate dissatisfaction not with words but through physical aggression.
“I love the idea of domestic classes for boys,” said Ellen Galinsky, the head of the Families and Work Institute. “We don’t teach anyone but girls—maybe by osmosis—about caring and nurturing. We don’t teach boys how to [work through] conflicts.” Galinsky noted that studies have recently pointed to the declining health of men and how the increasing pull between their desire—but lack of practice or time—to participate in family life has preyed on them, creating an anxiety in men over work-life balance: “I think it should not just be about teaching men to sew on buttons and remove stains, but life skills, how to understand and communicate with people.”
The long-term effects of this could help men adrift in the new economy. As David Leonhardt recently argued in The New York Times: “[T]he academic struggles of boys turn into economic struggles. Men’s wages are stagnating. Men are much more likely to be idle—neither working, looking for work nor caring for family—than they once were and much more likely to be idle than women.” White male unemployment, at 5.1 percent in April, is higher than white female unemployment, at 4.7 percent; black male unemployment, at 10.8 percent, is likewise higher than black female unemployment, at 10.4 percent. Making men central to the economic and emotional well-being of their families would provide them a sense of self-worth and obviate that dreaded “idleness.”
The idea of teaching boys to bake banana bread is surely anathema to social conservatives, aghast at what they perceive to be the gendered inversions (and perversions) of the past half century. But the joke is that a rejuvenated home economics course load would serve as a balm to some of the right’s pet anxieties, too. Teaching men to make substantive contributions within homes would make them imminently more appealing mates, potentially slowing the disintegration of the two-parent family structure on which conservatives like to pin all of society’s ills. It would at minimum ensure men more active roles within the lives of their children, whether or not they are in romantic relationships with the other parent.
The teaching of basic domestic competencies would also serve those men and women who do not yet, or will not ever, have children. The median age of first marriage has climbed to 27 for women and 29 for men; a knowledge of how to feed, clothe, and care for oneself—rather than depending, in the old fashion, on a mate who has been trained to serve you or support you on account of gender—is now a survival technique.
Obviously, elementary-school classes in home ec are no substitute for the kinds of economic and social policy updates the country so desperately needs. But a reintroduction of domestic education, this time for everyone, would have an almost comic number of ancillary benefits. Not least, it would remind us of the tremendous value of housework, which has been regarded as unserious for far too long—precisely because one population has been assigned to it by dint of biology.
Rebecca Traister is a senior editor at The New Republic.