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The Home Economics Story (Part II)

1951
12m 32s
United States
Produced by: Iowa State Teachers' College
Original Format: 16 mm
Consultants: Iowa State Teachers' College

This idealized story of four years in the life of Kay, Jean, Helen, and Louise evokes the lost world of Iowa State's Home Economics Division in the fifties. When an assembly speaker at the high school talks of girls who studied home economics in college, Kay is smitten. But it is a big thing for someone in her family to attend college. She convinces her parents to make the sacrifice and is so eager to leave that she is packing her bags just minutes after receiving her acceptance letter. There is more than a hint here that she wants something more than her family or high school can ordinarily offer. "What is home economics?" the narrator asks, hinting at the field's complexity: it is an interdisciplinary field that unites the arts andsciences with traditionally female activities, thus feminizing many otherwise neutral activities. In home economics, physics classes teach toaster-testing, and women chemists study the interaction of tomato soup and milk. Says the narrator: "All the classes seemed to fit together. Even the physics class was what a girl would like. It was about physics in the home. This course helped you to understand just what makes things run. Then, in household equipment, you could study the practical side: the use of an appliance. In turn, there were courses in foods and nutrition where you learned the why as well as the how." As a discipline, home economics looks both forward and backward. Although it enables women to leave the home and play essential roles in institutions, corporations, and schools ("She could see herself at the center of a world made up of large ovens and mixers manned by professional cooks"), home economists' work, seen as "women's work," has not been valued as highly as less essential work that happens to be performed by men. Even the professionalization of the home economics sphere has not kept its activities from being taken for granted. Historically connected to social movements like progressivism, to the empowering of women and immigrants, and to activism in the service of public health, home economics has a socially active side as well. Although The Home Economics Story expresses all of these (except social activism), the film emphasizes over and over that, most important of all, the training enables women to take care of their families and children. "Each girl has been preparing for two careers. One her chosen specialty, the other is acareer in homemaking." The students are not allowed to forget that they will be women first and home economists second. Kay fantasizes herself as a wife putting her training into practice at home. And there is a pitch for a traditionally female focus on emotions and psychology rather than on the material world: "The girls learn a lot from the children of the nursery school . . . how habits and attitudes learned at this stage are soimportant in later life. They learn how much depends on getting along with others . . . for, after all, we live in a world where people are more important than things."The Home Economics Story is also a great evocation of fifties college life, rich in culture and prescribed rituals; interestingly enough, at least in the home ec division, it is a world made up almost exclusively of women. Although a few football players and a prom date or two come and go, these four girls and their classmates spend four years together; their last year they even live together in the Home Management house. Louise has "the most envied task"-taking care of a baby. This is a free space for women to learnamong themselves, single-sex education at its most rarefied-at least until Beth first sports her wedding ring.Iowa State College's Film Production Unit made many films relating to home economics, including Yarn About a Kitchen (1955), a time-and-motion study of meal preparation, in which the woman's movements are marked by a three-dimensional trail of yarn throughout the kitchen. As a university production, The Home Economics Story is fascinating to watch and compare with other education. 

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The Home Economics Story (Part II)

 
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