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Tears Over Breakfast

Blocks © made by Dana Jones during "Riffing on Tradition" class taught by Maria Shell.

This morning, I found myself crying over the preface to a book: The Secret History of Home Economics: How Trailblazing Women Harnessed the Power of Home and Changed The Way We Live by Danielle Drelinger (W.W. Norton & Company, 2021). When I saw it was reviewed in the New York Times recently. I had to order it.

My tears began to flow when Drelinger talked about her mother who earned a double major in home economics and journalism then kept the home-ec part secret for years. Drelinger writes:

“By the 1980s, majoring in home economics seem passé and unintelligent….You will find many baby boomer women who hid their home-economics education.” She quotes her mother as saying: “I was embarrassed to be a home-ec major.”

Me too. Drelinger says her mother is no longer embarrassed to say she majored in home economics. Me too.

After many years of never mentioning my home-ec background, I have for several years now proudly claimed it. This blog is my official coming out: I have a minor in home economics and I’m proud of it!

I’m also newly proud to say I fought hard for this to be so. No adult in my high-school and college years thought studying home economics was a good idea. Everything in my school system segregated the girls who were college bound from those who were not through scheduling conflicts if girls tried to cross these lines. But that’s just what I did in my last year of high school. Here’s my story.

At the end of the first day of my senior year, I hatched plans for a personal coups. Day 2, I presented my guidance counselor with my new class schedule I’d drawn up overnight. It was geared around opening space for me to take my first ever home-ec class. He lectured me. I was making a huge mistake. He wouldn’t approve the new schedule. He wouldn’t let me destroy my life. The kicker: He said I was way too smart to take home ec.

I stood my ground. He called my parents. I hadn’t filled them in. There hadn’t been time. My mom told the counselor to call my dad. We never called my dad at work. Dad listened to the counselor, asked to talk to me, then told the counselor to approve my new schedule. Dad was always my hero.

That year is the only one of middle or high school I remember with fondness. In a class called Senior Survey, I learned a bit about each of the elements of home economics from the known topics like sewing and cooking to the lesser known like family budgeting, advocacy for women and early childhood education. Best high-school class ever.

When I decided to major in home ec in college, I found no support even from my dad. Then the University of Illinois tossed me any unexpected carrot. It instituted a lottery system for admitting students. I had decided to major in journalism but that college was only for juniors and seniors. The usual route was to enter the university through its College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the place the largest number of students applied. A number of qualified applicants would not make the cut simply because of numbers. If I instead applied to another college — like the College of Agriculture where home ec was lodged — I was a shoe in. One catch: I had to apply to major in home ec (or animal science or the like).

Another bit of luck. The only minors available to journalism students were through the College of Agriculture. I could spend my first two years of college taking home-ec classes for my minor. I’d definitely drawn a winning lottery ticket.

The classes weren’t easy, and chemistry, a prerequisite for textile and foods and nutrition courses, tough. I was woefully unprepared to be among classmates with years of 4-H experience. I survived and even thrived. When you are clueless, it turns out you can learn a lot, and everyone wants to help you. When it was time to apply to the College of Communications, I stuck with that plan but not without significant thought to staying on in home economics instead.

It was the 1970s. The world saw home economics about as far from feminism as possible, a strange twist since home economics had long been empowering women for careers in research and business. Journalism offered a place to embrace all the change, to be in the midst of all that was emerging in our society.

I never mentioned my minor on job applications for years believing it would only hurt my chances for jobs. And truth is, it probably would have. I never stopped using all that I learned in those classes. It was with great pride I included my minor when applying for an editing position with Quilters Newsletter in 2009.

Coming full circle, claiming all the pieces of who we are, is so affirming. I hope each of you reading this post has, is or will do so in your life journey. It may seem odd to say, but I think this newest book on my shelf is going to be a real page turner, tear jerker of a read.

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