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This is a recent press release from the International Federation for Home Economics (IFHE) about International Day of Families which is celebrated on the 15th of May each year. This year’s theme is “Men in Charge? Gender Equality and Children’s Rights in Contemporary Families”.

The International Day of Families is celebrated on the 15th of May. This day provides an opportunity to promote awareness of family issues and to increase the knowledge of the social, economic and demographic conditions affecting families. The theme for the International Day of Family 2015 is “Men in Charge? Gender Equality and Children’s Rights in Contemporary Families”. The IFHE supports the approach of the UN DESA, that “family laws govern family relations and seek to protect the vulnerable family members, including women, children and older persons. Fair family law frameworks are especially vital to ensure gender equality and tackle various forms of violence in families” (Background Note, IDF, 2015). Home Economists acknowledge the importance of gender equality in education, law, employment and business. All efforts towards gender equality such as legal frameworks encourage personal empowerment. The IFHE believes that women and men should have equal access to primary and higher education. This facilitates the development of empowerment to act responsibly for their families, women and young girls. Women should be given the tools, such as education and legal rights, to gain self-confidence and the ability to speak and act for themselves and for their children. In cultures and traditions where discrimination of women and girls prevails, men should be encouraged to act as reliable partners for women’s and children’s rights, their health and wellbeing. They should know about the link between the quality of life for women and children and the opportunity for sustainable economic and social development of their family and communities. The International Federation for Home Economics supports:

  • Improvements to women’s and children’s rights in national laws that remove gender inequality.
  • Actions that realise gender equality in families, economics and politics through access to education.
  • Empowering women to achieve self-determined actions for their wellbeing and that of their children.

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I listened. I cringed. I celebrated. I am talking about a recent radio interview on Radio Boston called “Home Ec For All” with Ruth Graham, author of Bring back home ec! The case for a revival of the most retro class in school.

In her interview, Ruth was articulate and intelligent about the history of home economics. She did an excellent job representing home economics and had done her homework. I also applaud Alice Lichtenstein’s essential work in the original article “Bring Back Home Economics” written in 2010. But, it would have been nice to hear from a Home Economist. I did love that the husband of a retired home economics teacher phoned in to bat on her behalf.

An interesting point was raised about processed foods being introduced into home economics classes in the 1950s and 60s. The theory and level of technical skill required to make bread and white sauce is still essential knowledge. Making bread and sauces are “the basics”. With this knowledge you can expand your repertoire and make lots of other things! I’m sure that Escoffier would have agreed with me. Assembling pre-packaged foods is not what home economics is about.

Contemporary home economics allows students to re-connect with the food system. In addition to lifestyle diseases, food security is also a serious issue. Home economics can provide students with opportunities to learn self-awareness; responsible consumer actions; basic life skills; service to others; and environmental sustainability. When home economics is given the opportunity to do what it is intended to do, this learning takes place. The role of home economics education as an agent for social change is a very important conversation to be having right now. However, we need an increase in public awareness about the plight of many home economics departments around the world. Closures and cut-backs are not acceptable.

In light of the above, what follows is my commentary on some current issues surrounding home economics. This commentary is my personal opinion and is informed by 4 years studying public conversations about home economics on the Internet, and forms a small aspect of my doctoral study.

Home Economics “Movement” in the 21st Century

What is a “movement”? My unofficial definition is a movement is called a movement because people take action. Let me give you an example of a “movement”. Amongst other things, the Romantic Movement (circa. 1770-1850) was thought to be a reaction to industrialisation. People lived and worked in horrendous conditions for the benefit of the ruling classes. Romanticism is also associated with The French Revolution (circa. 1789–1799). “The People” of France broke away from the ruling classes in a bloodied battle – and won democracy. That revolution was an act of desperation and reaction to oppression and hunger. Do not underestimate what people will do when they are hungry and angry. “The People” were not only fighting for equal distribution of food, resources and services but also art, science, intellectualism, individualism, and freedom. “The People” and their everyday stories became the heroes. Is this story looking familiar?

I am not suggesting a bloody revolution… just a revolution. Thankfully, ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’.

For those who didn’t know, home economics is not “dead”. In fact, in some countries home economics is alive and well. However, in some other countries, home economics does need a renaissance. “Home Economics” is a recognised household brand – but “The People” seem to have forgotten what home economics has done over the years to improve their everyday lives.

From its beginnings over a century ago, home economics has been successful in many campaigns to improve the health and well-being of individuals, families and communities. So much so, that home economics knowledge is embedded into many people’s daily lives, practices and industries. For example, hand washing, food preparation, kitchen designs, child care facilities, fashion and textile trades, workers rights, increased places for women in universities, and the United Nations “Year of the Family” which in 2014 celebrates its 20th anniversary. Yep… all influenced by home economists. Did you know that home economists work in some top level jobs? For example, Dr Margaret Chan, Director-General of World Heath Organisation, started her career as a home economics teacher.

To support the efforts of professional home economists, what is done at grassroots levels also makes an impact. The outcomes of an organised joint effort are policy changes, increased funding and resources. From recent media activity and comments, “The People” are remembering home economics and want to create opportunities for students, teachers, universities, schools, families, communities and societies to re-learn basic skills and elevate the status of home economics.

How can this be achieved?

Write letters, post blogs, make phone calls, ensure you have the correct information and keep it positive. The International Federation for Home Economics Position Statement: Home Economics in the 21st Century document very clearly states that home economics is alive and kicking, and also outlines the purpose and functions of home economics. I encourage journalists, bloggers, nutritionists, historians, parents, teachers and principals to read and refer to the IFHE Position Statement.  In particular, bloggers and journalists, I respectfully request three things: 1) refer to the IFHE Position Statement in your articles; 2) use photographs of home economics from the 21st Century; and 3) source your information from a Home Economist, an IFHE representative or your local home economics association. For me, one point of concern raised in Ruth Graham’s article was reluctance for home economics teachers to speak “on the record”. I was taken aback by this comment. Have you not seen the stuff posted by home economics teachers on Twitter? Amazing, innovative and very noisy! There are many home economists willing to speak about the positive impacts of home economics. Like these Home Economists did:

Shop, cooking classes help keep students engaged by Mary Ann Urban, a former home economics teacher from Boston.

Open Letter Regarding Faculty of Human Ecology by Christie Crow, Graduate 2009, Faculty of Human Ecology and
Education, University of Manitoba

One HomeEcConnect Facebooker also noted:

Many [home economics] courses are based in the “life literacy” skills needed in today’s world which include most if not all of the skills mentioned in these comments – nutrition ed and wellness (includes food prep), consumerism and resource management (which is more than just personal finance), child development (to help with parenting), healthy relationships and balancing work and family responsibilities. Unfortunately, many of these courses are considered elective, and placed behind the college prep, college credit and academic courses even though most have high enrolments and student interest. If you want to make this change to their education happen, call your local school board and request FCS [home economics] courses be part of your schools graduation requirements.

Is anyone listening?

Yes – apparently they are. Admits these repeated calls to “bring back home economics”, Northern Ireland’s Department of Education has done a good thing (she says understatedly). In a recent media release from Stormont Executive, Department of Education, it was reported that Education Minister, John O’Dowd, had officially opened £900,000 worth of new facilities at Shimna Integrated College in Newcastle and wait for it…. funding included £499,906.86 towards new home economics facilities. Reported by the Belfast Telegraph on Friday, 18 October 2013, it was noted that Northern Ireland’s Department of Education’s ‘Education Works’ campaign highlights the vital role families can play in helping children do well at school and improve their life chances.

Will other governments follow the example set by Northern Ireland? Funding is vital for the revitalisation of home economics departments. As indicated above, over the last few months, I have seen an increase in news coverage about home economics. This is encouraging but we need to keep the conversation alive.

The key message: family and community involvement

I love the African proverb “it takes a village to raise a child”. Despite the tendency toward urbanisation, closed in and fenced off housing, home economics departments can offer children one of the rare opportunities to nurture a sense of community spirit and learn vital life skills. We need to keep the pressure on school principals, P&Cs, university faculties, and governments to provide funding and resources to make this happen. Positive outcomes come from ensuring that local students and families are involved in decisions about what home economics skills are tailored to local community needs. By reaching out into the local community, students and families will feel empowered to stand up and fight to keep their home economics community alive and thriving.

Join the 21st Century Home Economics Movement

Ensure everyone’s voice is heard – your, theirs, the students, and the local community. Home economics departments must reach out into their communities or closures will continue to go unnoticed. We don’t just ‘teach’ about the health and well-being of individuals, families and communities – we involve them! Consult families and communities, and update the local curriculum accordingly. Everyone has a role in Earth’s future and home economics is an exceptional curriculum tool to promote active involvement. I encourage all home economists, students and parents to get involved in the 21st Century Home Economics Movement and enjoy the feeling of solidarity and connectedness along the way. Know that what you do makes a positive difference. Let the home economics revolution begin.

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I don’t think I need to say much about the following excerpt taken from a Home Economics book published in 1880… it speaks about “the tyranny of fashion”. Have we moved forward since then? Have a read and discuss…

Excerpt taken from Home and Health: Home Economics: a cyclopedia of facts and hints for all departments of home life, health and domestic economy.  Written by C. H. Fowler and W.H. De Puy. Published by Phillips & Hunt, 1880. (Open the link to read the whole book, courtesy of University of Toronto – Gerstein Science Information Centre).

A lady of extensive and intelligent observation, tells the story of the tyranny of fashion, and of the evil results of fashionable dress: “Fashion kills more women than toil and sorrow. Obedience to fashion is a greater transgression of the laws of woman’s nature, a greater injury to her physical and mental constitution, than the hardships of poverty and neglect. The slave-woman at her task will live and grow old, and see two or three generations of her mistresses fade and pass away. The washer-woman, with scarce a ray of hope to cheer her in her toils, will live to see her fashionable sisters die all around her. The kitchen-maid is hearty and strong, when her lady has to be nursed like a sick baby. “It is a sad truth that fashion-pampered women are almost worthless for all the good ends of human life. They have but little force of character; they have still less power of moral will, and quite as little physical energy. They live for no great purpose in life; they accomplish no worthy ones. They are only doll-forms in the hands of milliners and servants, to be dressed and fed. They dress nobody, they feed nobody, they instruct nobody, they bless nobody. They write no books; they set no example of virtue and womanly life. They rear children, the latter are left to the care of servants and nurses. And when reared what are the children? What do they ever amount to but weak scions of the old stock? Who ever heard of a fashionable woman’s child exhibiting any virtue or power of mind for which it became eminent? Read the biographies of our great and good men. Not one of them had a fashionable mother. They nearly all sprang from strong-minded women, who had as little to do with fashion as the changing clouds.” (page 193)

469px-Summer_corset_1880Don’t forget – in 1880 – corsets were still the height of fashion… you should read the whole section they wrote about that… whoa!!!

Laughter, crying and singing were considered healthy pursuits. Sunshine and fresh air was prescribed for all sorts of aliments. I loved this book. I was amazed at how much they knew. Based on hundreds of years of scientific evidence, much of this Home Economics knowledge has become “common knowledge” in 21st century life… BUT we still seem to be ignoring the good advice!

Warning: ubiquitous use of a Christian belief system and the overt patriarchy may taint some readers against appreciating this book; evil and fear at every turn. Although the “Church Manners” section (page 46) was an eye opener and particularly funny to a non-church goer like me. It sounds like boredom was problematic. Happy reading! Would love to see a discussion happen! Perhaps contribute to the Miss Representation conversation?

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