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Why We Shouldn't Forget Ellen Richards, Founder of the Home Ec Movement


Ellen Henrietta Swallow Richards was a pioneering industrial and environmental chemist in the 1800s and early 1900s. George Grantham Bain Collection/Prints & Photographs Division/Library of Congress/LC-DIG-ggbain-22078
Ellen Henrietta Swallow Richards was a pioneering industrial and environmental chemist in the 1800s and early 1900s. George Grantham Bain Collection/Prints & Photographs Division/Library of Congress/LC-DIG-ggbain-22078

Women in science have experienced what some researchers call "The Matilda Effect": the idea that women's work is systematically under-recognized or simply ignored, and men are given credit exclusively. The effect is evident, they claim, when men are disproportionately given scientific awards and prizes, considering the number of women nominated.

But researchers have become keener to learn how women's work in science has been overlooked, or prone to bias. When one scientific journal switched its review process to leave out the names of authors, women's acceptance rates rose 7.9 percent. And a 2013 study showed that abstracts of scientific papers were seen as higher quality if the author was male and wrote about a stereotypically male subject, like physics or math.

But female scientists also have been pushed aside for the very fields in which they study. Let's delve into the story of Ellen Swallow Richards, who was instrumental to modern science, yet her legacy (nay, entire field) was dismissed and appropriated into "real" scientific studies.

The first woman in America accepted into a scientific school (the male-only Massachusetts Institute of Technology), one of the first female chemists in the United States, a creator of state water-quality standards, and founder of the modern study of domestic science, or home economics, Richards' story typifies the Matilda Effect.

Ellen Richards' career path, by all accounts, hasn't received much recognition, and perhaps has been pushed aside because it wasn't seen as scientifically rigorous as "male" fields. After graduating from Vassar College with a degree in chemistry in 1870 and facing many rejections for jobs in the field, she decided to pursue more education. MIT accepted her, but only as a test case to see if women could handle the rigor of a science program. She passed the test. After receiving a Bachelor of Science in chemistry in 1873, she became a leader in pollution studies and developed a study she dubbed "oekology," which became the basis for ecology. Richards even taught sanitary chemistry at her alma mater for nearly 30 years.

Richards' development of euthenics, a study she defined as "the betterment of living conditions, through conscious endeavor, for the purpose of securing efficient human beings," demonstrates her commitment to improving public health and scientific education. Joyce Miles is a retired family and consumer sciences educator and a biographer and scholar of Ellen Swallow Richards. She says via email that Richards' early work as an ecologist studying air and water pollution led to the scientist's interest in examining the home environment. "From these beginnings, she began to see a collection of things that led to the formation of the Home Economics movement — including food and nutrition, housing and home furnishings, child and family development, clothing and textiles and consumer issues," Miles says. Richards founded the modern movement of home economics to incorporate science into the tasks of everyday life, as a way of improving living conditions on a household level.

Perhaps your idea of "home ec" is simply sewing a button on clothes and learning to cook an omelet. And yes, the science does include these household tasks. But what Ellen Richards recognized was that cooking, sanitary conditions, household organization and raising a healthy family were absolutely based in science. Not that women universally embraced her mindset, though. Miles says that early women's liberation activists were not fans. "They said [home economics] enslaved women to household tasks and did nothing to gain women equality," says Miles.

But Ellen Richards' work added value (and scientific backing) to work that women were already doing, like cleaning and raising children. She highlighted public health issues, like hygiene and lunch in schools, and household issues, like arsenic content in wallpaper and fabric. Much of Richards' progressiveness resided in her uplifting a typically female sphere, instead of urging women into typically male spheres for recognition. Radical stuff, really.

"Her biggest contribution was quite possibly in the area of nutrition," Miles says. In the "late 1800s, diets were very unhealthy and there was little discussion of how what you ate contributed to your health and longevity. She promoted nutrition education and the science behind foods and all the nutrients therein." Richards brought her background as a chemist into the kitchen, making chemistry part of the domestic activities of cooking and eating. And the science of diet and nutrition is now studied robustly.

But Richards also worked hard to give women and girls access to traditionally male spaces. In 1876, she founded the Women's Laboratory at MIT, a place for women to study the sciences. "Initially, I think her work did validate the work of other women," Miles says. "Advocating for the profession certainly gave women a place in higher education where they hadn't been before."

We still shuffle the discipline of home economics (now christened family and consumer sciences, with its own professional organization to boot) into a marginalized field, or consider it a "soft science," although the work is vital to many professions. "The practice areas as well as research areas today follow the same general topics as 100 years ago," Miles says. That includes studying nutrition and wellness, housing practices and research, and family and child development.

Yet it could be argued that society has largely forgotten the woman who pioneered the home economic movement and made science education and professions more accessible for women. Many fields we might consider more rigorous or important, like sanitation and environmental studies, are closely tied to Richards' research — just like the Matilda Effect might've predicted.